Smart Watches 2015 – 2019 : In Search of the “Killer App”

Checking the weather forecast is a good use for a smart watch, but far from a compelling reason to spend $500 to buy one.

In this third part of our series on smart watches, we see how the reality of smart watches is causing them to evolve in an unexpected direction.

While smart watches have failed to live up to the hype first surrounding them, their sales are steadily growing and so can be considered a success, and a continued opportunity for their manufacturers.  This suggests they are likely to continue to be developed and enhanced.

Apple introduced its first watch on 24 April, 2015.  At the time, there were assorted other electronic/smart watches already out there, and Apple’s interest in watches had been speculated about for at least four years.  The release of an Apple product served to move a product that until then had been very much a niche novelty, and make it a more respected concept.

Apple’s move was important not just for the smart watch category.  It was also an important “proof” to the world of Apple’s continued creativity after the death of Steve Jobs in October 2011.

To put this into context, Apple released its iPod in October 2001, its iPhone in June 2007, and its iPad in April 2010.  These dates – and the long gap between 2010 and 2015 – are significant.  After the death of Jobs, there was much speculation as to how successful – and in particular, how innovative – Apple could continue to be.

Each year post-Jobs seemed to show more challenges and disappointment.  The iPhone was no longer rapidly evolving and developing, while competitors were becoming stronger and market share was bleeding away from the iPhone. The iPad, which started in a similar blaze of glory, quickly faded and became less a vibrant and vital part of the company.  The iPod (remember that?) – the device that introduced the “new” Apple and its focus on portable products had pretty much died completely

By the time April 2015 came along, the negative commentaries about Apple having lost its mojo were becoming sharper.  So there was an enormous amount of excitement and expectation surrounding the release of Apple’s first electronic watch.

The concept of smart watches was not new.  Various smart watches had been on sale for about three years, and it was seen as a typical Apple strategy to allow a new product segment to evolve and mature somewhat, then to come out with a category-leading device that benefitted from the several years of marketplace experience and feedback that other companies had painfully created.

We wrote about the smart watch marketplace immediate prior to the Apple release here.  That remains an interesting background piece to provide context for the evolution of the market in the four years subsequently, and we’re relieved to say that we don’t feel embarrassed by re-reading the piece now, four years later.

The expectation was that Apple would uncover some new innovative way of making a smart watch a productive and practical new electronic device that we’d all want (or even need) to own.

Apple’s First Watch and Subsequently

The reality of Apple’s first watch release event was more mundane and even disappointing.  We wrote about Apple’s first watch release in detail here, and the thing that most strikes us when re-reading it now is the ridiculous nature of the pricing, with some of the watches priced over $10,000 and reaching as high as $17,000.

The pricing contained some beyond-stupid situations, such as fairly ordinary seeming watch bands being priced more than the watch itself, and the cost of a watch being higher than the cost of an iPhone.  It was a vivid example of Apple at its most greedy, and believing in its own hype.

Apple’s laughable objective was to sell its watches as luxury fashion items rather than as tech gadgets.  As we and many other commentators observed at the time, luxury fashion watches are heirlooms that last for many decades and have relatively unchanging designs and functionality.  Perhaps it is possible to justify $10,000 when buying a watch that will hold its value for ever, and maybe even go up in price over the years.  But to spend $10,000 on a watch that a year later is functionally obsolete and replaced by a newer better model, and three or four years later is no longer supported by the manufacturer?  Who, other than the ultimately unthinking rich, would ever do that?

The answer to that question was clearly “almost no-one” and Apple’s pricing has refocused at a reasonable level, although with some pricing pinpricks of pain to catch the unwary, as we discuss in our review of the Series 4 watch.

As for revealing a new innovative way to make a smart watch a productive and practical device, that was sadly entirely absent.  Instead, a lot of the presentation for the first watch revolved around the gimmick of “sending your heartbeat” to another watch user; a clearly ridiculous notion which they’ve mercifully gone silent on subsequently.

Another feature they spoke about – using an “intercom” type function to chat directly to another watch user/wearer, did not get released until very recently, and we doubt there’s enough people with Apple watches to make it viable, although at a family level it is possible a family might choose to equip themselves with watches with this feature in mind, assuming there is a “broadcast” mode where you can send messages to everyone else in a nominated group.

So we felt their watch, as first released, was a disappointment and chose not to get one at that time.  Apple have subsequently released four new models, and it is only now we feel their watch is becoming interesting.  The first watch, and the two models that followed, called the Series 1 and 2, were all very similar and somewhat underwhelming.  The Series 3 products released in September 2017 started to become more useful, and the newest Series 4 is clearly much better than any of the previous models to the point it becomes a more tempting concept.  We discuss that in the review of the Series 4 watch.

Apple doesn’t directly report the sales of its watches, so it is difficult to be exact as to what has happened since they started selling smart watches.  Apple boasts about sales numbers when it feels it has reason to do so, but invariably goes quiet when the news isn’t so positive.  So their failure to provide numbers makes it seem that the Watch product range never quite lived up to their hype and hope.

However, industry consensus seems to be that Apple has about a 36% share of the smart watch market globally and about a two-thirds share in the US.  It is further agreed that Apple’s Watch sales numbers are rising, and that Apple sold about 22.5 million watches in 2018, and have sold maybe 60 million or perhaps a few more in total.  So the product line has contributed $20+ billion in revenue since its release, with no doubt a healthy share of that being profit.

Not bad for a niche product, and while a muted rather than huge success, it is absolutely not a failure by any means.  It compares to sales almost exactly ten times larger for the iPhone, but whereas the Watch is enjoying annual increases in sales volumes, the iPhone is sharply dropping, and has about a 20% market share.  To round out Apple’s portable range, it sold almost 44 million iPads in 2018, with iPad sales also flat or declining.

With its other two major portable products struggling to maintain their historic sales levels, we expect Apple will remain committed to its Watch line, which clearly has substantial growth potential.  This commitment was clearly indicated by the major redesign and upgrades in the Series 4 Watch released in September 2018.

There’s one other benefit to Apple of its Watch product line.  It helps to generate more iPhone sales at a time when iPhone sales are desperately needed.  Their watches will only work with a partnered iPhone.  If you want a Watch, you need to have an iPhone too.

More than that, if you want a Watch, you must have a reasonably modern iPhone.  In my case, I acquired a new Series 4 Watch, but within weeks of receiving it, Apple announced that the new version of the Watch’s OS will only work on Watches if partnered with an iPhone 6S or more modern phone.

This appears to be a totally gratuitous and unnecessary requirement, but is a way for Apple to counter the tendency of people to keep their phones for longer.  (It is also a reason for people to choose any type of smart watch but an Apple Watch; we’ll discuss that later in this article series.)

The Evolution of Smart Watches – Fitness/Health

Back when smart watches were first appearing, and with Apple’s own first watch release, our sense was that smart watches were largely an unneeded solution to a non-existent problem.  The only problem it seemed to solve was a “What shall we develop and sell next” problem for the manufacturers, much like the spectacular and deserved failure of 3-D television sets.

The ability to make technology more powerful and simultaneously ever-smaller was (and still is) exciting and intriguing, and the abstract notion of a “Dick Tracey” type wrist phone has appealed for decades.  But a real “must have” app or purpose for smart watches was largely missing, and has arguably remained so in the four years subsequent to Apple’s first watch release.

The uses of smart watches have continued to follow the dual pathways that we outlined in our earlier article.  Health and fitness as one pathway, and “everything else” as the other.

Health and fitness apps have become more sophisticated, although smart watches have to coexist and compete alongside dedicated fitness devices that either have more accurate and additional sensors and monitors, or are less expensive.

Devices like the well-known Fitbit products offer sophisticated functions and massively longer battery life, at prices around half that of an Apple Watch.  Garmin is also repositioning itself as a high-end supplier of fitness products (in response to the erosion of its earlier GPS device marketplace).

Less well known brands such as Letscom and L8star offer almost as good (or even better) functionality to that of the Apple Watch, and at massively lower prices (usually less than $50), albeit sometimes with less polished user interfaces.

So these days if you want some type of health/fitness watch, there are many choices, and at prices from about $30 and up to usually no more than $250.

We don’t clearly see any “must have” extra health/fitness functions that the Apple Watch, at almost fifteen times the cost of a $30 product, offers.  Its recently released ECG function is perhaps the closest to a must-have extra feature, but other device manufacturers are scrambling to offer the same capability, so this is likely only a short term advantage to Apple.

Maybe the key must-have features are to be found in some of the other uses and purposes of the Apple Watch which more focused fitness devices don’t offer.

This leads to the second pathway of products, purposes, and applications for smart watches, the “everything else” category.  Without these, a smart watch seems to be little more than just an overpriced fitness monitor.

The Evolution of “Everything Else” on a Smart Watch

The concept of “everything else” is of course unavoidably a very vague category, and as wide as we make it, we can’t find any specific app or feature/function that registers as a “must have” item.  While we’re very much gadget enthusiasts, and so are pre-disposed to like pretty much any gadget at all for no other reason than “just because it is a gadget”, we can’t clearly see any one app that justifies a smart watch.

But we like our Apple Watch, and much more than we expected to.  Perhaps it is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?  Or maybe it is just our admitted love of gadgets?  We’re truly not sure and find it hard to point to any one reason why we like it as much as we do.

The big problem that sabotages everything our lovely Apple Series 4 watch can do is that each of these capabilities is also something that can be done as well or better – usually much better – on our phone.  But – and here’s the big “but” – not only can our phone do the same things better, our watch doesn’t replace the phone.  It is an extra device, not a replacement device.  While dedicated gadget lovers will seize an excuse to add another device, do ordinary people feel the same way?  We think not.

Tech history has generally been a case of products evolving to combine functions from previously stand-alone items, not a case of products splitting into multiple different devices.  Indeed, we need look no further than smart phones for the most relevant example of this.  Our phone has now combined and replaced the functionality that was previously present in multiple stand-alone devices that most people formerly owned :

  • An ordinary “feature phone”
  • A PDA/organizer
  • A camera
  • A camcorder
  • A GPS unit
  • An eBook reader
  • An MP3/music player
  • A video player
  • An alarm clock
  • A stop watch
  • A small flashlight

Eleven products have become one.  Other less common products/features are also available in a phone, for example a metronome, a sound meter, a light meter, a barometer, sometimes an FM radio, even a radiation detector.

Connect an external sensor through a dongle, and you have your phone also doing adequate duty as, for example, a digital SDR ham radio receiver, or an oscilloscope, or a frequency meter and generator, or a point of sale credit/debit card reader.  The number of different devices that have been or could be replaced by our phone is truly astonishing.

In addition to the products listed above, there’s another product worthy of mention.  More and more people are abandoning their wristwatches.  It used to be that everyone, with no exception, always wore a regular watch.  How else to keep the time?  But have a look around you now, and you’ll see many fewer people with watches.  We’ve even noticed that some people with a watch will reach for their phone when checking the time, because their phone is always accurate to within a second, whereas their watch might be several minutes out.

This highlights the twin curious contradictions of the smart watch concept.  It wants to go against the trend of fewer products doing more things, and it also wants to go against trend of phones replacing watches.  It is true that a smart watch tries to combine the features of a fitness monitoring device with some of the features of a phone, but does it succeed or fail in this attempt?

There has also been a response to the major feature/benefit of smart watches by the phone designers.  One good thing a watch originally offered was a chance to quickly glance at its screen to see what was happening, as opposed to a need to turn one’s phone on and go to several different apps to check on text messages, emails, phone calls, weather, and so on.  This was a useful concept, and so the phone designers added the same type of feature to phones.  Increasingly phones will display short excerpts about things the phone thinks you’ll want to know on their “lock” screen, without any need to turn the phone on or move between apps.  Android’s app widgets (and to a lesser extent Apple’s icons) can also display some data directly on the screen, too.

Adding this to phones has of course marginalized the “instant information” feature of a watch.  And, talking about instant information, there’s a huge problem with almost every smart watch out there.  To conserve their meager battery life, almost all watches have the display turned off, and to turn it on, you have to activate it by waving your arm around in a motion that indicates you are turning it to look at it.

But this gesture is not always picked up on (especially if your watch face is already point to you), hence the sometimes need to move your arm more aggressively to activate the display.  This is always a frustration, and the big problem is when you’re in a meeting and want to discreetly check the time.  With a normal watch you can simply glance slightly down to see the time, and hopefully no-one else will notice.  But with a smart watch, you need to first activate the display, which is sometimes difficult and conspicuous.

A related problem is that sometimes your watch display may activate “all by itself” and then something causes the watch to think you are giving it commands, so that next time you actually do want to look at your watch, when the display activates, it isn’t on its “home” time-telling screen, but might be on an entirely different and unfamiliar screen with no time indication at all.

This also introduces one of the perennial weaknesses of most smart watches.  Their lovely bright colorful displays are power hungry, and the battery in a smart watch is necessarily very small and with a low capacity.  A few smart watches have come up with a clever workaround with two displays layered on top of each other – a lower power black and white display to just display the time, all the time, and a bright color display to activate when you want to see/do other things.

But other than those few outliers, most people with most smart watches, will need to charge the unit daily.  The recommended practice is to do so overnight while you’re sleeping, and that certainly makes it less inconvenient and also becomes a routine that is easy to remember.  Although many watches will last more than one day, very few will last more than two days, so if you don’t recharge daily, it is anyone’s guess when on the second day the watch will die.

There’s been little improvement in battery life over the last four years.  It seems that most watch designers, when facing a choice between another day of battery life, or a thinner watch, will choose the thinner watch over the longer battery life.

Continued Dependency on a Phone

Originally, the smart watch was basically a remote connected screen and little more.  Most of the processing and sensors were on the phone, not in the watch.

Due to more powerful processors and more sophisticated software, the last four years have seen smart watches become less dependent on a nearby phone, but that dependence is still pretty much unavoidable in real world user terms for anything other than the briefest of “emergency” uses or for quick “overview” type glances.

No-one would make a regular phone call on a watch unless there was no other choice – the sound quality is poor and the conversation is not private (unless using headphones).  No-one would use the map on the tiny screen of a phone to navigate – a watch has about 1.5 sq inches of screen space; a regular phone can have ten times that much screen area.  Generally smart watches do not have a keyboard so the only way to “key in” data is by voice and speech recognition, and good luck trying to correct words the speech recognition gets wrong.

Watches continue to be mainly for receiving summary/overview information and much less for sending information.  For example, if you want to know the temperature right now, they are great.  But if you wish a detailed forecast for the next couple of days, it is probably preferable to reach for your phone.  If you want the score for a game, they are probably okay, but if you want a commentary on the game, reach again for your phone.

The Present Day – Should You Get a Smart Watch?

And so, here we are in June 2019.  Smart phones have become larger, more powerful, and more fully featured.  Smart watches have stayed much the same.  Screen sizes are largely unchanged (the Apple Series 4 Watch being a notable and welcome exception with more screen area but no appreciable increase in overall size due to a thinner bezel) because there are obvious limits on how much real estate you want to carry on your wrist.

Screen resolutions have improved, and particularly with the tiny sizes of the screens, it is important that they have as many pixels on them as possible so their small text is as clear as feasible.  Make sure you’re not being talked into a device with, eg, 240×240 pixel resolution, something that was never good and these days is woefully inadequate.

Android based watches are now reasonably compatible with Apple iPhones as well as with Android phones.  But the opposite is not true.  You can’t even activate your Watch if you don’t have an iPhone – and not just any old iPhone, but a sufficiently recent model (the incipient release of WatchOS 6 it will require the 6S and more recent models).

Samsung seems to have created a viable third smart watch OS – Tizen, which is compatible with both Android and iOS devices.

There remains a relative paucity of apps to run on smart watches, although that begs the question of what else would you want to do on a smart watch that is not currently offered.

Not only have the rush of apps that Apple confidently predicted failed to materialize, but some “major name” apps that were originally developed and released have now been discontinued – for example, apps from Instagram, Google Maps, eBay, Amazon and Slack.

Should you get a smart watch?  We struggle with this question and its answer.  The main reason we’re now sporting a $500 Apple Series 4 Watch on our wrist is because a kind reader and generous supporter sent us one as a gift.  But, now we have it, we are finding it surprisingly endearing.

In particular, there are probably few people out there less interested in health and fitness than we are.  But we have found the health and fitness apps, after a bit of fine tuning, to be positive and gently encouraging some small shifts in our lifestyle, changes which “the experts” seem convinced will give us better health and longevity, and that’s surely got to be a good thing.

We are definitely converts to the concept of some type of health/activity tracking and goal setting/encouragement, and if someone as disinterested as we are in the concept of health/activity finds this compelling, we suspect that just about everyone else will too.  This reason alone is more than enough to justify some sort of wrist-worn device and seems to be a “killer app” (or perhaps, quite the opposite, in a mix of metaphors – a life saving/extending app).

But is it necessary to spend $500 on an Apple Watch?  Could a less expensive Android watch for $250 do the same thing?  How about a $50 fitness tracker?  These are questions we will address in other parts of this series.

Summary

Now that the Apple Watch has been out there for four years, the evolution of smart watches and their capabilities would seem to have progressed to a fairly mature point.  The result is somewhat surprising – while smart watches are slowly growing in popularity, the main uses for them seem not to be in ways originally expected.

Rather than using a smart watch as a replacement for the data and telephony services on a regular phone, the prime use of a smart watch seems to be as a fitness device.  Rather than replacing a phone, a smart watch can, in some situations, extend and enhance a phone.

We unhesitatingly recommend a fitness/health/heart monitoring device as a valuable tool and encouragement to live a healthier life.  These devices can be had for less than $50, and seldom cost more than $250 – in other words, they are about half the price of a smart watch.

Does it make sense to go from a specialized fitness device to a smart watch that costs considerably more?  Only you can answer that, for yourself, and we expect you might find the further articles in this series – reviewing actual smart watches and the buyer’s guide – to be helpful.

2 thoughts on “Smart Watches 2015 – 2019 : In Search of the “Killer App””

  1. Very comprehensive and useful article. The good news is that the Apple watch is falling in price. Currently you can get the Series 3 aluminum models for $200 to $250 on Amazon or at Costco.

    1. Hi, Phil

      Thanks for your kind comments. Yes, the Series 3 is plunging in price, and there are even discounts on the Series 4 too. But I’d ask readers to hold off on getting a Series 3 until reading my article next week about the Series 4 – I feel the Series 4 is so much better than the Series 3 (primarily in terms of the display) as to perhaps justify the cost differential.

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