TIME Big Picture

For Smartwatches to Hit It Big, Context Is Key

Samsung Gear 2
A Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch sits on display at the Samsung Electronics Co. pavilion on day two of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Simon Dawson--Bloomberg / Getty Images

A while back, I talked about health and fitness wearables and my failure to see how they appeal to a broader market. This week, I want to talk about the potentially lucrative category of smartwatches.

If we count Microsoft’s Smart Personal Object Technology (or SPOT) watches as smartwatches, then I have been using these kinds of devices for many years. However, even the current (or soon to be shipping) crop of smartwatches leaves me puzzled. I still question how big of a market the smartwatch category could be. Honestly, I’m on the fence.

To dive deeper, I think it would be helpful to look at a few current and future value propositions related to smartwatches. We have to start with this question: What is the value of a smart, easily viewed, small screen on my person? Answer this and we’re getting somewhere.

The key is that the smartwatch screen is always in view. Unlike other screens – my smartphone, tablet, PC, TV and others – this smart object on my wrist is easily viewable throughout the day as long as I’m wearing it. To answer my question, we have to look at some things I may personally care to be notified of, regardless of whether I’m looking at any other screen. The key to this is context.

When am I not looking at my smartphone, PC, tablet or TV? When I am driving, at a lunch or dinner meeting, or walking around the mall, for instance. These are the times a smartwatch must deliver value beyond keeping time.

Currently, the proposed value is in notifications. The smartwatch will notify me of an email, text or Facebook message, Twitter mention, incoming call, and more. Any app that pushes a notification to my phone can and does push a notification to my wrist.

More often than not, I find this more distracting than helpful. I get a lot of email, text messages, Twitter mentions, and calls throughout the day. My wrist buzzes quite a bit, mostly with notifications that aren’t useful to me. The reason? The watch (and even my phone, for that matter) doesn’t understand context.

I may not want to see all my emails, but if I’m waiting for an important response from a client, it would be useful to see certain messages. I don’t want to be notified of all phone calls; only ones that are urgent – say, from my wife.

This goes beyond a filter. It is all about context. The device needs to know more about me and my situation to be useful. Smartwatches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be useful on the wrist.

For example, when I’m in a meeting, I don’t want to look rude as I check my watch 15 times over the course of an hour every time it buzzes. But what if my phone or watch knew where my next meeting was and would alert me of any traffic issues I should be aware of that may change the time I need to leave in order to not be late for my next appointment?

This is what makes some of the proposed use cases of Android Wear somewhat interesting. Google Now does a decent job of focusing on contextual data that’s useful at a glance. This could be location data, traffic data, and a host of other things that can equip us to take action and make decisions. Ultimately, this type of contextual data that’s useful in helping us make choices is where the value of a wrist-worn smart screen may lie.

My biggest misgiving is that we will experience notification overload. Even though I test some smartwatches that have useful filters for which apps notify the watch and which don’t, I still suffer from notification overload. My concern is that if we open the wrist screen to notification from solicitors – trying to get our attention with deals, discounts, and coupons – we again suffer from notification overload. There will have to be an intelligent way for much smarter notifications to reveal themselves if the smartwatch category is to go mainstream.

Part of me feels that the smartwatch is still a solution in search of a problem. But another part of me feels that there’s value to be found on a screen that’s more easily viewed than a screen in a pocket or a purse. Many seem to believe that smartwatches may be the next hot category. I still have my doubts. Mass market appeal and convenience is what the smartwatch needs to find. Until then, it will be a niche market.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.

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