If you watched Google present Android Wear last week, you’d think the smartwatch was the hottest product on the market. What could be better than an intelligent timepiece that can take calls and understand voice commands?
It turns out nobody cares. At FindTheBest, we compared traffic and user engagement for dozens of product categories, from smartphones and laptops to printers and processors. The results? FindTheBest users are three times more likely to research fitness trackers than smartwatches, and over 40 times more likely to research smartphones. Even the godawful Bluetooth headset is more popular.
So we asked ourselves: why isn't the smartwatch as popular as its wrist-based cousin, the fitness tracker? Why hasn't the mainstream market bought in? Here are four reasons:
1. Smartwatches are too thick
According to WatchStation, the average case thickness for a standard wristwatch is between 8-12 mm, while anything in the 6-8 mm range is considered “thin.” Unfortunately, most smartwatches clock in north of 10 mm, making them seem more like clunky gadgets than sleek, sophisticated timepieces of the future. For a tech geek, this might seem like a petty complaint, but for the mass market, design and comfort beat specs and features any day (see Jobs, Steve).
Yes, the recent Sony SmartWatch 2 (9 mm), Samsung Gear Live (8.9 mm), and LG G Watch (9.9 mm) are thinner than most of their rivals—a promising trend for the industry. But you can’t disrupt a market when your product is about the same as existing options—you need something noticeably and undeniably better. Shave off another 3-5 mm and then we’ll talk.
2. Smartwatches are too expensive
For classic wristwatches, prices are either dirt cheap (ex: a $10 grocery store Casio) or criminally expensive (ex: a $20k Rolex). The problem? People tend to think about watches as one of these two things, and rarely anything in between. Smartwatch manufacturers have attempted to create a new price category altogether, where most models range from $100 to $250. It seems reasonable enough on paper, but regrettably, wealthy consumers don’t want Twitter updates and digital displays (smartwatches) as much as they want Swiss craftsmanship and family heirlooms (Rolexes). Meanwhile, average Joes won’t want to spend much more than they did on last year’s Casio.
Obviously, $10 is unreasonable for a smartwatch, but what about $50 to $99? If manufacturers can price these things more like Apple TVs and less like iPods, we might see a bump in mainstream adoption.
3. Smartwatches haven’t solved the battery life conundrum
Like prices for standard wristwatches, battery life on smartwatches is polarized. A few select models—like the Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity and ConnecteDevice Cookoo—can run for months without a single charge. Pretty much everything else will be lucky to survive a week. It gets even worse for the prettiest displays (like the LG G’s LCD screen or the Galaxy Gear’s AMOLED display), where you’ll need to plug in every night—in other words, a charging ritual no better than a smartphone's.
The problem is that the more “smart” a watch is, the worse battery life it tends to have. Even with their months of battery life, the Citizen Eco-Drive and Cookoo are hardly smartwatches—they’re mostly analog timepieces with a couple of neat notification features. The 7-day-battery Pebble Steel is a little better, but it can’t compete feature-for-feature with the 1.5-day-battery Galaxy Gear.
In the end, smartwatch manufacturers need to rethink battery life entirely. They need to ask themselves how they can bake in all the same features without requiring customers to plug in night-after-night. If you’re not convinced this is a problem, consider that the best idea the industry has had yet is to “flick your wrist to turn on the backlight.” I mean seriously.
4. Smartwatches don’t have a compelling reason to exist
Quick: what is a smartwatch’s primary benefit, in just a few words? Voice-based texting? Safer driving? Taking calls without getting your phone out of your pocket or purse? Seeing a Facebook notification three seconds faster?
The smartwatch’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t solve any tangible problem. The first personal computers revolutionized productivity. The first MP3 players allowed people to store thousands of songs in one place. Smartphones let consumers take the Internet with them in their pocket. Even fitness trackers let people seamlessly track their exercise goals. Until the smartwatch proves it can do one thing really well—that it can solve one simple, common, necessary problem—the device will be nothing more than a hobby for geeks and an excuse for Samsung to make creepy ads. Time is ticking.