Smartwatches are playing by different rules and the tech world needs to adjust

The way we judge success may not apply to smartwatches and it's time for change
Smartwatches play by different rules

I've spent a decade in tech journalism and it's surprising how little changes. Sure, huge innovations come and go – smartphones, tablets, VR and wearables have all arrived during my time – and the way we judge them are fairly standard.

Things arrive and we judge how good they are. We look at how interested people are, and how they look and perform. After that people go buy/use it, and if that thing is widely used or has changed the narrative, we consider it a success. If people hate it or moan about it, it's deemed a failure.

Essential reading: The best smartwatch 2016

And there's little room for negotiation. Windows Vista: fail; iPad: success; Zune: are you kidding me?

So as a tech person I've had to change my thinking in the new world of wearable tech. And because of this shift change, it concerns me when other tech sites make sweeping statements based on the lessons learned from old tech. Because it's becoming clear that largely – and we're talking smartwatches here – the tech is following the path of the fashion world, not the tech one.

I've used an iPhone for the last two years – I was Android before that, and might well be Android again soon. But I don't care if I have the same smartphone as my friends. I don't mind if everyone at my local coffee house has a MacBook Air that looks the same as mine.

But if everyone wore the same watch as me? With the same strap? That's a problem.

And that's how a lot of people feel. But it means that as the smartwatch market matures, there's going to be room for more players. That's not an opinion I just dreamed up. It's one that's held by a host of wearable tech CEOs and experts, including Bill Geiser, who launched the first Sony Ericsson smartwatch in 2006, founded Meta and now heads up the Movado/HP partnership.

Bill Geiser's arm and his Movado Bold smartwatch

I caught up with him back at Baselworld and as I chided him about the lack of "killer apps", clear use cases for smartwatches and a lack of perceived success, he had this to say:

"In tech you have three players and first one owns most of it and the other two do okay.

"Watches are fragmented. Fossil is the leader of the fashion watch market but maybe they have 25% of the world market. That's 75% left to play for. So there's lots of room. And it's because brands appeal to people in a unique way. And I think 10 years from now most of these watch companies will be selling some product that has some smart functionality."

This was backed up by a chat I had with the CEO of Frederique Constant, who said the company had sold 40,000 Horological Smartwatches in the year since launch. 40,000 sales in the tech world is a laughable number, but in watch land it's big business.

I've spent much of the last year talking to people who echo Bill's sentiments. Yes, most of them are trying to persuade me that their product has a future. But I firmly believe that when it comes to smartwatches, looking for single winner is a road to nowhere.


And Bill had even more to say about smartwatches and the criticism that there isn't a killer app:

"When you buy a nice watch, it's about communication – saying I've made it. Now, would an LG G Watch say that? Or a HP, or a Samsung? Apple maybe they have that lure as a brand.

"These brands [fashion brands] have been built carefully over many decades, and that's the watch industry's unfair advantage. They know how to make you want something. That's why I don't worry about 'my watch doesn't have this or do that.'"

Obviously people will disagree. We need winners and losers. Also these comments don't hide the fact that smartwatch take-up has been lukewarm to start off with. The lack of a killer app is a reason for that. But every major watch brand that's ventured into smartwatches has seen positive uptake. Tag Heuer, Mondaine – and in a slightly different mode – Swarovski with its fitness tracker.

But we wouldn't judge a new Bremont in the same way as new smartphone. So when judging the latest wearables, let's be mindful of the comparisons we make.

3 Comments

  • Joey1058 says:

    Now that you mention the fact that smartwatches will be dominated by the fashion industry, I'm reminded that I would love to own a Timex smartwatch. But sadly it's not in my price range. I'll be like hundreds of others that has to buy based on affordability. Which means a cheap Chinese knock off. But I do agree that most wearables, not just smartwatches, will be subject to the fashion industry. And once that happens, the tech brands will fade into oblivion, and companies from Timex to Rolex will reign.

  • PendragonUK says:

    From what I can see "wearables" fall in to several categories. There is the obvious fitness tracking devices, more braslet than watch. You have the fashion watches that have limited functionality and great looks that rely on traditional sales. From a tech point of view I'm not sure if we can really call them smart devices as they are watches with the addition of smart functionality. I think they will always stand apart, and is what I think this article is about.

    We have both Android Wear and Apple with their do everything but charge it daily. They tend to do a lot but none of it very well. Then there is Pebble, marching to their own tune. Less functionality than the most but what they do they do very well. Cheaper to buy, reducing the barrier to entry to the world of smart wearables. The people that own a pebble would never own a fancy brand name watch like Heuer. For these people their pebble is definitely tech like their smartphone or laptop. 

  • dougcpwarner says:

    wearable tech isn't really destined to be "tech" at all, but simply an extension of things people already want to and are used to wearing. For the most part this means the (fashion) brands people know and love will ultimately dominate, even with smart watches. Yes, there will be exceptions to some degree, like Aople, which has become a tech-fashion brand of sorts. But do we really expect the mass population to wear Chinese manufacturer "brand XYZ"? I seriously doubt it. The exceptions will come where utility and function trumps form, brand and image. Fitness wearables today largely fall into this category. And, I believe there will be stand out new digital fitness brands like Fitbit, but they will have to contend with trusted athletic brands such as Under Armour which I believe will dominate. Thus, when it comes to "smart" watches, folks in the tech community are wise to stop thinking about these things as tech categories and start thinking about them as everyday categories that are and will increasing be expected to simply be 'smart'

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