Does Anyone Outside Silicon Valley Even Want a Smartwatch?

By
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

In the past week, I’ve been called “Inspector Gadget” twice, had a near-calamitous accident involving spray-on sunblock, and felt my arm vibrate so often I started treating it as a phantom limb.

All because I’m part of the latest tech trend, a bona fide phenomenon in Silicon Valley that is inspiring the kind of pants-wetting excitement usually reserved for new iPhones and Grand Theft Auto games. I’m talking about smartwatches—the tech world’s quixotic attempt to mount minicomputers on your wrist. I’ve been wearing two smartwatches for several days apiece, and so far, it’s been an enlightening experience. Though not necessarily a hopeful one.

First, some context: Viewed from a certain distance, today’s tech industry resembles a group of aging, hyperambitious tycoons not entirely sure where to direct their massive piles of cash. Google, once a mere search engine, has decided it wants to invest in same-day-delivery trucks and connected home appliances. Amazon, which used to be content with e-commerce, is making phones and experimental drones. Facebook recently spent $2 billion on a maker of virtual-reality headsets. And Apple is trying to fix health-care data while it works on the iPhone 6. The competition between tech companies has never been more fierce, but the players themselves seem to be peering at the future through very different sets of binoculars.

And then there’s the smartwatch—the gadget nearly every big tech company is betting on in unison. Google’s new operating system for watches, Android Wear, was the star of this year’s developer conference. Samsung has five smartwatches already in circulation, and Apple has hired executives from TAG Heuer and other companies to help build its own smartwatches, widely expected to arrive this fall. Recently, Wired gushed about wearable devices—a category that includes face gadgets like Google Glass but at present consists mainly of things you put on your wrist—saying that they are “poised to push smartphones aside.”

Despite all the buzz surrounding wearables, it isn’t clear who’s supposed to be buying them. Fewer than half of the respondents to a recent Accenture survey said they would consider buying a smartwatch, and even the most optimistic experts predict only 20 million smartwatch sales this year, a pittance compared with phone and tablet sales. The market’s skepticism might be a function of how early smartwatches fared (few lasted more than a year or two before being pulled from shelves). But more likely is that today’s smartwatches remain mysterious, somewhat redundant gadgets. Even the most sophisticated models don’t do anything a phone can’t do, except sit comfortably on your arm. And the Dick Tracy novelty factor is still high. Silicon Valley code jockeys might appreciate being able to order pizza from their wrists—which is, by the way, a real Android Wear app—but the rest of us don’t have much need for another device to lug around, keep charged, and worry about breaking.

So, why are our biggest tech companies obsessing over such a piddling idea?

To understand the smartwatch hype, it helps to know that the consumer-tech world is going through an identity crisis. Smartphones and their affiliated apps have powered Silicon Valley’s profit engines for years, but growth in the phone market is slowing as more people make do with the devices they already have. (Research firm IDC expects smartphone growth to fall to single digits by 2018.) Tablets and laptops won’t make up for those lost profits, and audacious projects like self-driving cars are still a few years away from the mass market. Hence the smartwatch, which puts the essential functions of a phone on your wrist and, more important, gives complacent smartphone users a new gadget to buy and fill with apps.

Industry insiders predict that smartwatches will soon have their own robust, discrete functions, such as making wireless payments at cash registers with a simple tap. For now, though, they’re mostly playthings, and playthings with very serious limitations. In my days of testing the $229 LG G watch (which runs on Android Wear) and the $299 Samsung Gear 2 (which doesn’t), I found that both of my smartwatches were capable of helping me with simple tasks like reading short emails, checking the weather, and setting reminders. (The LG watch was much more helpful than the Samsung model, thanks its integration with Google Now, the Siri-like assistant app that allowed me to tell it things like “Okay, Google, navigate to Golden Gate Park” and “Okay, Google, text my mom and ask her to call me tomorrow.”) But the screens are too small to do anything more than view two or three lines of text comfortably. Plus, since at the moment smartwatches need to be tethered to your phone’s data connection in order to work properly, they actually don’t allow you to streamline at all. And while it was convenient not to have to reach into my pocket every time I got a Facebook message, Twitter reply, or email, the constant buzzing raised my stress level considerably. Then there’s the matter of having a $300 gadget strapped to my wrist, which creates anxiety of its own. “There’s a reason people stopped wearing watches,” says Daniel Matte, a wearable-technology analyst at Canalys. That reason? Phones.

But another recent Silicon Valley investment frenzy suggests one scenario in which the smartwatch could succeed: the arrival of the much-ballyhooed “internet of things,” in which nearly every item in your home, car, and office will be linked by software and controlled through a central hub. In a fully connected home, a smartwatch could function as a next-generation remote control, one that gives orders to your entire array of smart appliances. “They’re a very natural beachhead into all of these other connected devices,” says L2 research analyst Colin Gilbert. “And they’re a more natural device than digging a smartphone out of your pocket.”

There’s also another, somewhat stranger-seeming scenario: that the smartwatch could succeed as a high-end fashion accessory. A $200 iWatch might sell to the tech crowd, but at $500, or even $1,000 or $2,000, a tasteful, well-designed smartwatch could make real inroads as a fashion statement among the kinds of people who are already accustomed to buying expensive jewelry for their wrists. This may sound odd, but consider that the iPhone itself is already a kind of fashion accessory, priced well above competitors that offer nearly identical features and performance. By designing something that signals “I have arrived” rather than “I know JavaScript,” smartwatch makers could ease the pressure to sell tens of millions of units, and might even reap some of the benefits Wall Street affords to luxury brands—which tend to trade at higher earnings multiples than tech companies do. “A lot of the tech companies recognize wearables as an opportunity to get into an adjacent business that has very different economic fundamentals,” says Gilbert.

If smartwatches do make a splash, it will be the culmination of a decades-long dream in the tech world and the refutation of just as many years’ worth of sideline kvetching. (In 1985, two years before I was born, New York’s tech critic reviewed several early models and asked, “Does the world really need a wristwatch computer?”) It will also be proof that sometimes geeks really do make a good focus group, whatever non-geeks think of their predictions at the time. Many Silicon Valley inventions have been panned for being too narrowly tailored to the lifestyles of young, urban techies, and while that’s often true, some products that begin as hobbyist diversions eventually make good in the market. Like tablets, which were a joke until the iPad broke sales records. Or Twitter, which seemed like a thumb-twiddling exercise for nerds until it went global. Or, for that matter, personal computers. After all, tech marketers once conspired to put a giant, complex machine of questionable utility in your lap. They should be able to get one on your forearm, too.

*This article appears in the July 14, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.