Smartwatch makers are finally learning that missed call and new email notifications are hardly what consumers want from connected wearable devices. This is one of the important trends I've noticed this year when viewing a slew of brand new products that, in my opinion, demonstrate the smartwatch industry is settling into a semblance of maturity.
Don't get me wrong, smartwatches are far from reaching a point where they are ready to go entirely mainstream, but I'd like to suggest that smartwatches are moving from total infancy to tumbling toddlers.
For those of you who don't know me, I am Ariel Adams, founder of aBlogtoWatch. I have spent the last decade of my life mostly talking about 'traditional' watches – just don't call them 'dumb'. When smartwatches became a thing a few years ago, I was among the only people on the traditional side of the industry to applaud their arrival and edict that they would indeed be a big deal (eventually).
People greeted these awkward, often ugly, and of questionable utility devices with everything from skepticism to complete disdain. When covering products such as the Apple Watch we got hate mail (no joke), and when covering something such as the Tag Heuer Connected, we had people suggesting the brand was on its last legs and suffering from a permanent downward spiral.
None of this negative 'watch lover' feedback to smartwatches fazed me in the least. I was, and continue to be, convinced that smartwatches will make up a large percentage of the wristwatches sold in the near future. In 2017 my reservations about the desirability of many smartwatch products have decreased, and I find myself surprised at how quickly the smartwatch market is evolving.
Growing up fast
In 2017 I find myself surprised at how quickly the smartwatch market is evolving
As most of you know, the smartwatch industry is a mixture of technology hardware and software companies, as well as watch industry traditionalists working to figure out what products consumers actually want. Of course there are also a number of important startups which help define what the smartwatch industry is. In just a few years the diversity of the smartwatch market has been extremely impressive, and consumers have a dizzying array of products to choose from. As is the case in any new product category with a lot of promise, consumer choice will be plenty, but it is almost impossible to predict what designs, features, products, or companies will have the most staying power.
I began this piece by suggesting that the smartwatch industry is growing up. What I mean is that 2017's smartwatches not only feel like items which have more consumer appeal than even before, but the industry that is involved in making them feels a lot more defined. Even traditional watch makers, such as Fossil Group, are banking almost everything on the fact that their future is in smartwatches (of various types).
A feature-packed smartwatch that isn't convenient or easy to use is not going to see a lot of wrist time with consumers. People these days want less screen time, not more of it, so the real challenge smartwatch makers have had is offering genuine utility and convenience. On this note I am happy to say that for 2017 the smartwatch is finally becoming much less of a "second screen" for your phone, and more an independent item with its own value proposition.The biggest problem the smartwatch industry faces isn't battery life, but an understanding what people actually want to do with these devices.
Companies such as Samsung have learned that there is a big difference between what a product can do, and what people actually want to do with it.
Going beyond the second screen
This is very important because consumers more or less strictly said that they want less things pulling on their attention. While notifications on your wrist can have utility, they are more times than not annoying. Thus, I've seen a major shift away from phone notifications on the wrist, especially with "hybrid" devices that have more traditional analog dials and "smart" guts.
Hybrid smartwatches, as companies like Fossil call them, are meant to look like traditional watches but offer something a bit extra. Of course they are meant to connect to your phone, but in 2017 they aren't just there to feed you information from it.
The bigger issue here is fashion and style. Traditional analog watches tend to always beat out screen-based ones for sex appeal. That isn't something that is changing anytime soon. So what we're seeing in 2017, at Baselworld 2017 and elsewhere, are sexier, albeit simple smartwatches from a series of companies ranging from Fossil to Frederique Constant, and startups like Kronaby. Here we see brands appreciating that simple functionality which ensures a timepiece is reliable and always displaying the right time, with some other simple features, and a lot of style is what consumers want – especially as a transitional product from wearing a traditional watch to a connected one. I tend to agree.
No one even questions the appropriateness of fashion-forward women wearing a chic looking Apple Watch anymore
For the mainstream, Apple more or less invented the luxury smartwatch with the Apple Watch. With its high-end construction and slick operation, the Apple Watch remains the screen-based watch to beat. Samsung (who used its in-house Tizen operating system) and those watches which sport Google's Android Wear are starting to catch up. The Apple Watch will remain the wearable of choice for brand loyalists, and Apple is doing an excellent job of segmenting its base-level aluminium product with higher-end models in steel or ceramic, and of course when combined with fashion-friendly Hermès straps.
No one even questions the appropriateness of fashion-forward women wearing a chic looking Apple Watch anymore. It might not be an expected accessory, but it certainly is no longer out of place even in a high-end atmosphere.
Smartwatches going Swiss-made
Tag Heuer leads the traditional watch industry in their adoption of the smartwatch as being a permanent arm of their business. Tag Heuer will continue to product excellent traditional quartz and mechanical watches, but a new segment of the brand is producing smartwatches in-house in Switzerland. So 2017 is the year when the smartwatch gets "Swiss Made."
This is a big deal for an industry which is seen as being both extremely conservative about design, as well as stubborn about change. The Tag Heuer Modular Connected 45 will be among the most expensive Android Wear watches of the year, but also offer unparalleled personalization and luxury options (including diamonds). It also happens to look pretty darn cool.
Casio – which brought us the iconic G-Shock – is about to release the ProTrek WSD-F20 Android Wear smartwatch, which is all about GPS functionality and phone independence (when you need it). Casio is still alone amongst traditional Japanese watch brands to produce a smartwatch, but I have a feeling that will change in the years to come as the hardware continues to mature.
What really defines smartwatches in 2017 is they no longer feel like devices built exclusively for early adopters. There are plenty of very affordable options which offer a mixture of fashion and functionality, and the high-end is being filled out with a series of devices which enterprising technophiles will no longer need to feel embarrassed to wear in public.
I'm pleased that the focus of most smartwatches is moving beyond being second screen to a smartphone, and the connection with the host device feels more natural and less like a burdensome tether. I'm still trying to figure out which smartwatch is the best one for me, but I can say that connected wearable devices are finding a place in my watch rotation.