Smart Watches – A Solution in Search of a Problem?

This is the first article in a series about Smart Watches – links to the other articles are in the box immediately adjacent.

It was written in March 2015, immediately prior to Apple’s first Watch release in April, and serves as an interesting background to the evolution of smart watches up to the point where Apple joined the market.

The Motorola 360 is very attractive, but can you read the words on its display?
The Motorola 360 is very attractive, but can you read the words on its display?

Smart watches seem to be a good example of how not every new gadget that comes out is automatically something you must have, or even should have.  Just because smart watches are becoming popular with manufacturers doesn’t mean they are something we should all be rushing to buy.

Indeed, smart watch sales to date have been disappointing.  The first smart watches, at least as most people define the category, started appearing in 2012, and a mere 3 million were sold globally in 2013, rising modestly to 4.6 million in 2014.  To put that number in context, there were 1.3 billion smart phones sold in 2014 – 300 smart phones were being bought for every single smart watch.

Amazingly, there are thought to be 40 different companies all offering some type of smart watch product – a lot of companies are betting on future growth, and the launch of Apple’s smart watch next week is thought (hoped) to be a case of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.  Some of the more optimistic market projections are suggesting the market will explode to more than 30 million units in 2015 (with over half of those being Apple watches).  At least thus far, with precious little difference between this year’s smart watches and last year’s, this seems unlikely, absent some miraculous transformation when Apple enters the market.

The benefit smart watches offer to manufacturers is obvious.  They are another new thing to sell us and profit from.  But what do smart watches actually do for us?  Let’s see if we can answer that question.

It is important to understand that most smart watches are not standalone products.  They need to be partnered with a nearby smartphone, which acts as a gateway and a ‘force multiplier’ for the watch, enabling it to use the phone’s internet connection to send/receive data, and often other phone services such as its GPS and phone calling and text messaging too.  So they don’t replace a phone, they only ‘augment’ it and provide a second screen and interface into some of the phone’s capabilities.

There are two main categories of things that smart watches do.

Health and Fitness

The first and perhaps stronger category is a range of health and fitness related apps – and currently with a greater emphasis on fitness than health.  These are apps to monitor your pulse and perhaps blood pressure, and to match that with the number of steps you’re taking, the distance you’re traveling, the speed you’re traveling at, and possibly even the height you’ve climbed.  With a bit of figuring and some approximations, they can calculate the calories you are burning, and can also connect to other semi-intelligent devices such as a set of scales for a more comprehensive set of reporting about your overall physical condition.

Together with a phone and related internet based services, they can keep records of your exercise activity, show pretty charts, and make suggestions for your ongoing program of activities.

For the less active among us, some smart watches  have apps to monitor our sleep patterns too.

If you see the value in such apps and the information they offer, then quite possibly a smart watch might be something you want.  There have been dedicated fitness/health devices available for a while, and the companies that make these fitness monitoring devices are variously switching to becoming app-providers and dropping their focus on hardware, or at least, coming out with apps for smart watches as well as continuing to offer their own dedicated hardware (for example, Fitbug).

This is a similar evolution to Amazon and eBooks – first it offered its own Kindle e-readers and now, more recently, it offers Kindle software that will run on just about any computer, tablet, or phone.  Just as rarely makes sense to buy a Kindle by itself any more (well, the eInk Kindles still serve a good purpose), it might be that it increasingly makes sense to buy a smart watch that costs no more than a dedicated fitness monitoring device, and which has the promise of doing more things too.

There are some concerns about privacy issues – who exactly will be accessing your health information, and what will they be doing with it?

If these health/fitness apps don’t cause you to rush to the store, let’s now look at what else they can do.

Everything Else

The other types of apps a smart watch offers are mainly ways of routing information and services on from your phone and to your watch.  The claimed concept is that some things are more convenient if available on your wrist, rather than on your phone.

For these types of apps to work, they need to be able to connect to and interact with your phone, usually using Bluetooth.  Currently that pretty much requires you to have a smartphone that runs Android 4.3 or higher.  This site features some of the watches and apps currently available.

Next week will see Apple introduce a smart watch that will work with their phones, and rumor has it that within a few months, Android based smart watches will come out with an iOS compatible ‘back end’ that will enable them to interact with iPhones as well as with Android phones.  We don’t know if, but don’t expect that, the Apple watch will ever be compatible with Android phones – that type of open architecture is the antithesis of the Apple design philosophy.

A smart watch represents a curious reversal of the evolution of phones.  Do you remember, before smartphones, when each new model ‘feature phone’ would be smaller than the one it superseded, and the focus was on creating the smallest possible tiny phones.  There were some very clever and lovely designs and sizes of phones developed, with all types of innovative ways to cram the largest screen and keyboard into the tiniest space.  Parts of phones would swivel around, slide out, or flip open so as to increase the amount of surface area when the phone transitioned from being passively carried to actively used, and we probably reached the logical extreme of how small phones could become.

And then, all of a sudden, smart phones introduced so many new uses for the phone screen, and we started needing keyboards to type on as well, and the earlier concept of ‘smaller is better’ was reversed, and now, bigger is better.  The first iPhone was notable for a larger sized screen than any of the other leading phones when it came out (it had a 3.5 inch screen with 5.8 square inches of screen space, whereas most earlier phones had 3″ or less screens).  Since that time, screen sizes have steadily increased, and the current iPhone 6+ with a 5.5″ diagonal has 12.9 sq in of screen space, more than twice the area of the first iPhone.  A few Android phones have even larger screens, and we have ‘phablet’ type devices with even larger screens, too.

At the same time this was happening, another trend evolved.  People stopped wearing watches, and increasingly relied on their phone for telling the time and setting alarms.  Who needs a watch when you have a more accurate phone with you all the time?  One study suggests that two-thirds of American teenagers no longer wear watches (but probably 95% of them are joined at the hip to their smartphones).

As our phones have increased in size, there was a thought – are phones getting too big, too bulky, and too clumsy?  If the answer to that is ‘yes’ you might think the easy solution is to buy a smaller screened (and less expensive) phone.  But smartwatch manufacturers are hoping that while you agree that phones are getting too big, instead of choosing to buy smaller phones, you’ll continue to buy the biggest phones possible and now add a smart watch to compensate.

The idea is that the smart watch will do some things for you that are easier done by glancing at your watch rather than by pulling your phone out of a pocket or purse.

That’s a very narrowly defined feature/benefit, isn’t it – something that you could do on your phone anyway, but which you could do better or more conveniently on the tiny screen of a watch, instead.  What sort of things might this be?

Well, therein lies the problem.  The one obvious use for a watch might be for, ummm, telling the time.  But try persuading the people who have stopped wearing ordinary normal watches, because they find it as easy or easier to use their phone for telling the time that they now need to get a more expensive smart watch to do the same thing they no longer wanted to do with a regular watch!

Talking about expense, that points to one of the main purposes of a smart watch.  It seems that one of the strongest reasons for buying one is to display it as a piece of expensive jewelry.  Of course, that has been a traditional ‘use’ for watches for a long time, as anyone who owns a Rolex will probably concede, and we think it significant that many new smart watch products are being designed and priced for the high end user, rather than the ‘practical’ user.

Is this a concession by the manufacturers that there really are no practical/functional reasons for a smart watch, merely reasons of conceit and hoped for personal image enhancement?

But, back to the actuality of what these devices can be used for.  Precious little seems to be the answer.

One of the most ridiculous ‘uses’ we’ve encountered so far is the ability to download music files from your phone to your watch, and then play them from your watch to a set of Bluetooth headphones.  What had us rolling on the floor with laughter was the suggestion that this was ‘more convenient’ than just directly playing the music from your phone, either to Bluetooth or regular wired headphones.  Who in their right mind would want to add this extra step in the middle?

Other uses are not really measurably easier than with a phone.  For example, maybe you could use the smart watch as a wireless payment device, but is that really any easier than using your phone for the same thing?  How quick and simple would it be to activate the wireless payment app on the phone, for that matter?

This leads to the general issue of how to control your smart watch.  While there may be a touch screen, you sure aren’t going to want to somehow squash a keyboard onto the screen and try and type.  Many of us find the touch keyboards on our phones already uncomfortably small for our fingers to accurately land on the appropriate tiny key squares.

While keyboards remain impossible on a watch, we have seen smart watches with calculator type displays on them – all that did was remind us of the totally unusable calculator watches of the 1970s and 1980s, a failed product concept long since abandoned.

Necessarily, many smart watches will accept voice commands.  That’s okay, but if you’ve used voice commands with your phone, you’ll know that while your phone usually gets things reasonably correct, sometimes it doesn’t, and in particular, if you’re dictating a text or email, you need a way to correct the occasional words the phone ‘hears wrong’.

How to do this, easily, on a smart watch?  And what about noisy environments, where your words get mangled in with all the background noise?  Or quiet environments, where you have to whisper, and/or don’t want the people around you to know what you’re asking of your watch and phone?

A smart watch can be set to display notifications when you get emails and text messages.  Maybe that’s a useful thing, and maybe it is more convenient to look at your wrist and watch than at your phone, but depending on what it shows, maybe that shows information that you don’t want to share with other people with you and who could potentially also see your watch’s screen.  You’re in a business meeting with Company A and you get a message from their competitor, Company B; you’re on a date with Suzy and get a compromising text message in from Jane, or many other potentially embarrassing scenarios.

Our biggest concern is the tiny size of the smart watch screen.  While they are usually and necessarily larger in size than a regular man’s watch (and thicker and heavier too), there’s just so much (or, so little!) information you can conveniently crowd onto the watch screen and still be able to comfortably read it, particularly for those of us with aging eyes.  There is a reason there has been pressure for phone screens to get bigger and bigger – not just to display more information, but to display the same amount of information more clearly.

Another application of a smart watch which seems just plain crazy to us is displaying photos on its screen.  The screen seems way too small to us, and because you’ve necessarily also got your phone with you, who in their right mind wouldn’t choose to proudly show their photos on the five or even ten times larger screened phone?  Indeed, it is much easier to pass your phone to someone else to show them a picture than it is to take your watch off and hand it over.

Talking about size, something else is unavoidably very tiny in a smart watch.  Its battery.  You’ll definitely need to be recharging your smart watch every night, and that is something that might or might not be easy.  Unfortunately, most smart watches don’t have a regular USB connector you can plug a standard USB charging cable into.  Instead, they have ‘clever’ recharging systems that require special docks or cradles – this is okay while you’re at home, but if you’re traveling, it is one more thing to have to pack and travel with, some extra space and weight in your suitcase, and one more thing to have to remember to repack and take with you each time you’re checking out of a hotel room.

Oh – all the extra ‘work’ your phone is having to do, communicating with your watch?  That’s going to impact on your phone’s battery life, too.


If you’re looking for a type of health and fitness monitoring sensor device, then a smart watch might be a great way of getting this functionality and some more besides.

If you’re wanting to make a high tech fashion statement, then for sure, a smart watch is a great way of doing that.

But, for all the rest of us, is a smart watch a stupid answer to the question we should be asking :  What exactly does a smart watch do for us, and how does it do it better, than simply using our phone by itself?

Maybe Apple, on Monday next week, will come up with a category defining new app and a positive reason to get a smart watch.  We hope so – we’d love to get one, ourselves, but currently, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t see any reason to do so.

Update :  You can now read our analysis of the Apple Watch release, here.  It failed to come up with any ‘must have’ applications or reasons for purchase.

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