The future of hybrid smartwatches: What happens next

New features and challenges that lie ahead
The future of hybrid smartwatches

Hybrid smartwatches cemented their place in the mainstream in 2017 – and they have a big future, if analysts are to be believed.

One report earlier this year suggested that hybrids would make up 50% of the smartwatch market in 2022. And CCS Insights believes that while shipments remain small in 2018, from 2019-2022 we will see an increase in people buying hybrids, despite still making up only a small portion of the overall smartwatch market.

In 2018, there has perhaps not been the same influx of hybrids that we saw in 2017, which was largely driven by the Fossil Group – made up of brands like Kate Spade, Skagen Hagen and Michael Kors (to name a few).

This year Fossil has been focusing its attentions on full Wear OS watches. We also got a new Apple Watch, Samsung's Galaxy Watch and Fitbit has joined the full smartwatch party too. But the hybrids are still going strong, and we've had new watches from the likes of Skagen, Mondaine and Timex. Plus, Withings is back and marked its return with another a new sporty hybrid.

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So what will be the key to success in the future and who will be the main players that push the category forward?

We take a look at what we think lies in store for the humble hybrid in the near and distant future.

The quest to make things smarter

Future of hybrid smartwatches: What happens next

So far the formula has been to take beautiful, 'dumb' watch designs and discreetly add those connected smarts. Those smarts have usually taken the form of basic fitness tracking (step counting, sleep tracking) or finding room for a vibration motor to buzz you when a phone notification comes through.

That's been achieved without impacting on the slimness of the design or long battery life. There have been plenty of great examples of this from tech companies and traditional watchmaking brands. But there comes a point where hybrids need to get smarter and the people making them need to get smarter about adding more connected features. That point feels like now.

Read this: The future of fitness trackers

It's clear that as full fat smartwatches like the Apple Watch continue to grow in popularity, there is also a growing demand for hybrids to act a bit more like Apple, Samsung and Google's watches.

Making that happen isn't going to be easy and it could take time for that to happen. Using existing watch features like crowns or adding additional physical buttons are just some of the ways hybrid watchmakers are seeking to add extra functionality without making design compromises.

Swedish startup Kronaby uses these traditional watch features to allow its hybrids to do more and utilise more smart features like music controls and even personal safety features. It's also using the strap (like many other watchmakers) to introduce features like contactless payments. It's starting with straps, but is also working to build that functionality into its watches too.

With the return of Withings, it's continuing to push the boundaries of what a hybrid can do too. Its watches now feel more smartwatch than ever with the introduction of a digital sub-display. It's also trying to add more sports tracking skills with its latest, the Steel Sport HR.

Having already introduced a heart rate monitor with the Steel HR, it's now offering connected GPS. The key word here being 'connected' and not built-in GPS. You still need your phone to make this sports tracking feature work. Adding a GPS sensor would inevitably impact on the thickness of the watch.

The problem is that Withings' hybrid is starting to bulk up, especially in comparison to previous iterations, and it's something the company is no doubt mindful of.

A different kind of hybrid

Future of hybrid smartwatches: What happens next

So what we could see emerge is a greater shift to a hybrid more in the mould of something like the MyKronoz ZeTime 2 or the rumoured LG Timepiece. This is something that starts to feel a bit more full-fat smartwatch than the hybrids we are currently used to. That's a full touchscreen that retains the traits of a traditional watch that are overlaid on top.

We've already seen hybrids that merge traditional and digital displays like the Withings Steel Sport HR and the award-winning Garmin Vivomove HR. In fact, these types of watches have existed for years. But we're of course talking about the ones that can display more of the kind of data you'd expect to see on a proper smartwatch. Whether that's notifications or fitness tracker data. The problem with these types of hybrids is that battery life takes a hit. Something that we'll get onto next.

The big battery conundrum

Future of hybrid smartwatches: What happens next

The quest to make things smarter will inevitably impact on the two things that make hybrids so desirable. That's design and of course battery life. Hybrids can muster up anything from 30 days to two years depending on what's powering them, whether that's more modern battery methods or the standard coin cell kind that have been powering watches for decades.

Essential reading: The future of smartwatches

So the challenge is to increase the smarts without denting the battery. Swiss company Manufacture Modules Technologies (MMT), who has worked with the likes of FrédériqueConstant on hybrid watches previously, believes it has a solution to the problem and it's already working on it. It's perfecting the tech to make a hybrid that will never need charging.

It's using a combination of what it calls 'state-of-the-art solar panels', energy harvesting technology alongside an ultra-low power watch module design. MMT has already conducted studies to prove it's a viable solution for hybrids and found that as little as one hour per day or three to four hours of direct light was able to help power smart features. We're talking features like step-counting, sleep tracking, notifications and auto-time updates. So solutions are being worked on and don't seem that far away.

Who will be part of that hybrid future?

Future of hybrid smartwatches: What happens next

It seems like we can expect the usual suspects to push things forward. While Fossil Group has been quieter on this front as it makes a greater push with its Wear OS-packing smartwatches, we still expect sub-brands like Skagen to continue to launch more stylish hybrids.

Now that Withings has been returned to one of its former owners, and having already launched a new watch, it's made it clear that it still believes in the hybrid. Even Casio is starting to warm more to the idea of what we consider to be a proper hybrid, despite the fact that the Japanese watchmaking giant believes it has been making them for some time.

Swiss watchmakers will clearly be part of that hybrid future and should remain a way to get a newer, younger audience to wear its watches. Brands such as Frédérique Constant and Mondaine will no doubt continue to persevere with the smart analogue approach and lead the charge from the traditional watchmaking world.

Then there is of course the startups who continue to innovate and offer solutions that are preventing hybrids from taking that next big step. We are talking the likes of Kronaby who continue to pack more smarts into traditional (and stylish) watches.

There's also startups like LunaR who produced and launched its first solar-powered smartwatch. Successful crowdfunders Conex Watches SA are in the process of building their X-One mechanical smartwatch with modular powers. The big and the lesser known names are going to be equally important to the future of hybrids.


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  • SeaworthyJim·

    I own the Skagen connected and the Michael Kors Gage smartwatches. Both are beautifully designed and in my humble opinion, I think this is what a smartwatch should be. I don't like the plastic bright screens of the regular full smartwatches. To me, they are nothing more than a watered down version of the smartphone; not an extension or assistant to the smartphone. The smartwatch, indeed, should be a watch first and secondly a device to bring notifications to you from your phone. The battery life is not an issue with hybrids because you don't charge most of them in the first place! Novel idea, I know! Using a simple coin cell battery as mentioned by the author of this article just gets replaced every four to six months; Simple! I know a lot of people like the idea of downloading an endless varity of watch faces but let's be real, the digital screens on full smartwatches can NOT replicate the beauty of a mechanical watch. The worst thing about full smartwatches is shelf life. What do you get 2 years? Maybe 3 if your conservative? A good looking watch that brings notifications, sleep tracking, alarms, step counters, etc. seems to me to be a no brainer. And you don't look like an idiot talking to your wrist in public, lol. I believe, in the not so distant future, we will look back at the full smartwatches and talk about how we tried to cram too much on our wrist; how distracting it all was; and ultimately how obsessed people became with the bright flashy screens. I look forward to seeing hybrid watches become more popular as the idea of what we expect out of our watches evolves. If you're in the fence about trying a hybrid I highly encourage you to give them a chance, especially if you already wear a watch. To the author, I enjoyed your article and you brought up some great points!