What’s wrong with wearables? Here’s 5 problems

Extending smartphone functionality to your wrist is not creating the magical new market opportunity many were predicting.

Moto 360 Android Wear
Moto 360. One of the best first generation Android Wear watches. But held back by terrible battery life.

What is wrong with the Apple Watch? Is it really flopping?

I have thoughts on that, and will share them in a separate post this week, but, for now, maybe the real question is:

What’s wrong with wearables?

It’s not just the Apple Watch that appears (we don’t yet know for sure) to be struggling to win over consumers. Android Wear devices — there are a total of 7 currently, made by LG, Motorola, Sony, and Asus, with another model announced by Huawei coming soon — aren’t exactly selling through the roof. One estimate had those Wear devices selling just 720,000 units in the second half of 2014. Not exactly iPhone numbers.

Pebble was an early leader, and innovator thanks to its trick e-paper display that provides for long better life, and superb outdoor readability. The new Pebble Time has had a few hiccups, at least in my experience. And, even though the Palo Alto start-up raised $20+ million via Kickstarter, the overall sales volume is not large, not mainstream large. If you assume an average pledge value of $200 (my guess) than that would equate to about 100,000 units total. Plus, of course, you need to add to that sales of existing Pebble products. Impressive for a 100-person or so sized operation, but not something Google and Apple investors should be too thrilled about.

So what’s the problem with wearables?

After testing the Apple Watch, a year of wearing Pebble (and now Pebble Time), and recently having re-tested a batch of Android Wear smartwatches (getting better), I have some thoughts. The list is actually very long — and there are many positives too — but for now here’s 5 key problems I see with wearables in general.

5 Problems with Wearables in 2015

1. A smartwatch is an accessory, not a new market opportunity

A lot of analysts looked at wearables as a new market opportunity. I’m not so sure that’s true, at least if we’re talking about smartwatches. I see them as accessories. Like a mouse. A Bluetooth speaker. Or a VR headset like Google Cardboard. They add functionality, yes. But they require a paired device — usually a phone — to work. Further, a smartwatch merely extends functionality, that already exists in your pocket, to your wrist. It doesn’t necessarily do anything your phone doesn’t already do. From this perspective, if wearables are accessories, “attach rates” become central to sales thinking. How can Apple, must go the strategizing, attach more sales of the Apple Watch, for example, to the iPad, and iPhone. It’s easy to switch my iPhone for an Android. A little more painful if I own an iPhone and an iPad — all that synced cloud data. But really a tougher decision if I own an Apple Watch. It will become worthless if I switch to Android. Ouch.

2. Too expensive

Blame Apple. You can buy an Android Wear watch for as low as $149 (Moto 360) and even less if you look around online for the original LG G Watch (still a solid performer). Apple, though wants us to buy into the idea of an “accessory” that begins at $399. Come on, now, there are phones out there that cost less! That have 4G LTE. HD screens. And run full-on apps to boot (something the OG Apple Watch is missing… native apps). Celebrities, hip-hop artists, athletes, sure, drop $17K on a special edition watch, and make it rain, and all that… for middle America, even for the iClass, it’s too much to swallow. Until prices hit $100-200, I don’t expect the masses to buy in.

3. Too complicated

When was the last time you had to actually think when setting up an Apple product for the first time?

Yet, that’s the Apple Watch. That magic factor, not so much. I wonder: would Steve Jobs have Ok’d this design? CEO Tim Cook did. The jury’s still out if this is going to be the first new product category to successfully bust open a new market under his leadership.

When was the last time you had to actually think when setting up an Apple product for the first time?

The Apple Watch has two buttons, one of them a crown that can rotate. And there are touch-based gestures, and two different ways to touch the screen (regular and force touch). At first, it overwhelms. Over time, I found it not a big deal. You get used to the different ways to interact with the watch. But, I’m an early adopter, and I like new gadgets, if only because they are new. The average buyer? Not so sure they’d put up with the hassle. Android Wear, for what it’s worth, is not a whole lot better, though I do find it easier to use (there are fewer buttons, and the interface simpler).

4. Offer little functionality above-and-beyond a phone

Your smartwatch isn’t really that smart at all. It simply relays information — primarily notifications such as text messages, emails, social network updates — to your wrist. Handy? I think so. I love it when I’m driving or at the gym that can see urgent texts, or control music (Music Boss, awesome).

The thing is, we see greater, evident value in a tablet. It’s great for reading, watching movies and checking Facebook on the couch, at the end of a long day. A tablet is a standalone device with lots of functionality.

Apple and Google have done less than yeoman’s work convincing us that we really need a smartwatch. Nice to have, sure. Then again, nice to have doesn’t drive the kinds of sales many are predicting for wearables.

5. Clunky designs

Don’t tell me the Apple Watch is fashionable. It is not. Baume & Mercier? Probably a better choice if you’re looking to wear something tasteful to go with your designer dress.

For it’s part the Apple Watch is not bad looking. Quite nice, actually. But how on earth is Apple expecting us to buy in to this whole fashion idea? By hiring fashion designers and executives from Burberry. A red herring to be sure.

Most designs are inelegant (LG G Watch… though I like it!), incomplete (Moto 360 and the “flat tire” though I really like it!), or underwhelming (sigh, Pebble Time of which I’m struggling to remain a proponent).

Re-adjusting Expectations

Not everyone will want a smartwatch. That we know. And since you have to own an iPhone or Android device, we know that the size of this market can’t realistically be larger than that of the one for smartphones. It’s not going to be 0% either, of course. It’s going to fall somewhere in between. My suspicion is that less than 25% of smartphone owners will want, and buy, a smartwatch. That number could be far, far less if the nextgen batch don’t come soon with significant improvements (battery life, ease of use would be good places to start, in addition to native apps for the Apple Watch and persistent Cards for Wear). Look online for Android Wear deals, and you’ll find prices are plunging, fast. Last I checked there’s about a thousand or so Apple Watches, new and used, for sale on eBay.

MORE Wearables Stories

Everyone talked up Google Glass. It bombed (though I love what Google is doing with VR and Cardboard, and the market is reacting enthusiastically, especially in the education sector). 3D was the rage for a very short time. Now along comes wearables. Us in the tech blog community love new stuff, so headlines tend to skew towards awe and wonder at the new and shiny. Fair enough. But we ought not to confuse that enthusiasm for market acceptance.

My theory is that wearables are accessories. The attach rate of this new slew of devices is way low. Less than 25% of those that own a smartphone will buy a smartwatch to pair with it. If anything this is a niche market. That’s not a bad thing by any means, it just means we may need to reset our expectations of the wearable opportunity.

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  • kdarling

    The Moto 360 only had poor battery life way back at the beginning. It soon got the first of several updates that vastly improved it, and now goes up to two days in my experience.

    Repeating such out of date info makes the rest of an article seem suspect.

    • I have a 360. Wear 5.1.1 helps. But no way you’re getting 2 days (48 hours).

      • JK Stern

        I doubt he is literally saying he gets 2 days. I unplug mine at 7am and can usually get to about 5-6 the following day. That, to me, is 2 days. And your profile says you own a Pebble?? Do you also own an Apple Watch?? hmmm

  • mambastik

    Great write up. Just want to comment on each point.

    1. “Further, a smartwatch merely extends functionality, that already exists in your pocket, to your wrist. It doesn’t necessarily do anything your phone doesn’t already do.”

    An observation, but also a pro instead of a con that you’re trying to make it sound. As flagships start getting into 5+ inches, it becomes more and more cumbersome to wield and one can no longer simply whip it out to check texts, emails, or even the time without some balancing act or finger gymnastics. In this case I agree with your first point, a smartwatch is indeed an accessory which adds to convenience. Even on a busy commute home (I’m talking about Penn Station on a holiday), you’re all standing like tuna fish. You do not want to be fiddling around with a 5+ inch display in a train that crowded. Changing songs by tapping your watch? Yes please.

    2, 3. These seem like a hit to the Apple Watch instead of wearables in general.

    4. This point relates to what I wrote out for the first point. I mean, what kind of functionality would you want on a watch that is “above-and-beyond” a phone? Let alone match the functionality of a phone? Do you want face-to-face Skype calling, with integrated video cameras, speakers, and a mic? Do we really want to see the megapixel race in smartwatches?

    5. Of course this is all about taste. But I do agree the Apple Watch is like a Prius or Nissan Leaf, it just screams “I’m a smartwatch!” instead of making it look like an actual watch. I think the new LG G Watch R looks clunky, and the markings around the case make it more G-Shock looking than professional business wear. Disagree on the 360 though. You say flat tire, others say minimalistic, and I actually love it. I think the 360 with the black case and cognac leather looks absolutely gorgeous.

    Yes, prices are plunging fast, which is why I might actually have an opportunity to pick up a 360 myself soon. And maybe for others to try it and see for themselves how they might want or use a smartwatch. The cons have a lot of weight for a $200-250 price point for entering the wearable fad. With the 360s going for as low as $130 during a recent Woot deal, it makes it very easy to overlook the cons.

  • JK Stern

    sorry but this article seems like it was written by a 60 year old who is not into tech. I have came across some of your articles Mr. Stark and normally agree with what you have to throw out there. But this is completely a knock against Android to something I just do not agree. The 360 is beautiful, the batter lasts me a good 36 hours on average. There is a lot of function it gives me. I do not have to kill the battery on my Nexus 6 by checking for notifications nearly as much too. That is a HUGE bonus.

    And I see on your profile that u own a Pebble, which is the most HORRID watch ever, I sold mine on Amazon after 2 months. This ENTIRE article (besides battery life) should have android replaced with Pebble, then it would add some credibility to what you are saying. Those are worse in literally every category unless you are a 13 year old out of the 80s who digs oldtime Casio watches.