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After a year of setbacks, can smartwatches still succeed?

For years we heard that smartwatches were coming and they were going to be awesome. After the iPad was a thing, analysts started talking about the iWatch being the next big thing. Google was heavily rumored to be working on wearables too. Then, Pebble beat them all to the market with a record-setting Kickstarter campaign.

A year or two ago it seemed like all the predictions of the importance of smart wearable technology were coming true. Now, a series of public setbacks have called into question the idea of a mainstream smartwatch. Regular people wanted (and still want) smartphones, but what if they don’t (and never will) want a smartwatch?

The most obvious blow to smartwatches is the collapse of Pebble. The company was profitable for a while, but it took a lot of venture capital to get it there. After a poor end to 2015, it found itself losing money again. Pebble laid off a chunk of its workforce, but that wasn’t enough. Additional funding was not available, so the company went back to Kickstarter in mid-2016.

The Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core campaign was a big success, at least by the standards of Kickstarter. However, Pebble wasn’t just a startup anymore — it had employees, developer cloud services, and other things to run. Pebble wasn’t selling enough of the old watches to keep the lights on. When the development of the crowdfunded devices fell behind schedule, Pebble had to throw in the towel. It simply didn’t have the money to continue. Fitbit agreed to buy it for around $40 million, which is enough to cover its outstanding debts and refund Kickstarter backers.

Pebble Time Steel

Android Wear was designed to be a more powerful smartwatch platform. These devices have high-resolution displays, apps, and advanced voice commands. The first year or two of Wear was encouraging as many smartphone OEMs partnered with Google to release smartwatches. For the second generation, most of the big names stuck around to make more watches. However, this year was much more barren in terms of Android Wear releases. Arguably the two most successful Android Wear partners, Motorola and Huawei, did not make new versions of their smartwatches.

Just recently, Motorola confirmed that it has no further plans to make smartwatches right now. The reason? Not enough people want to buy them. Although, the company contends that “the wrist still has value,” whatever that means.

Meanwhile, Google has delayed the release of Android Wear 2.0, which was supposed to arrive around the same time as Nougat for phones. However, the feedback it got from the developer preview over the summer was not great. Rather than release on time, it has extended the developer preview and plans to launch the new software in early 2017.

Apple Watches

And then, there’s Apple. Cupertino is famously tight-lipped about sales unless a product is doing well. It loves to point out how many iPhones it sells whenever there’s a presentation. Sales figures on the Apple Watch have been conspicuously absent amid flattening overall sales, but analysts have been claiming huge declines in sales this year, as much as a 71% drop. Apple CEO Tim Cook sort of responded, saying that sales are up for the holiday season. That’s not really the same as a successful product.

You can convince people to buy plenty of things of only marginal usefulness, provided those things aren’t too expensive. The vast majority of smartwatches have retailed for more than $200 and as much as $700 or $800 for the fancier models. This is smartphone money, so for that people quite reasonably expect a device to make a similar impact on their lives. Smartwatches don’t do that.

In some cases, the costs were even higher for watches with LTE built-in, which is just silly. You can’t accomplish anything of consequence on a smartwatch, so no one is going to just leave their phone at home and use the watch solo on LTE. But still, carriers like AT&T and Verizon have been trying to get people to commit to paying an extra $10-20 per month for LTE on their wrists.

Even for those who were willing to try something new, smartwatches have offered poor battery life. Android Wear devices and the Apple Watch are good for a day, and maybe slightly more if you plan to be around the charger the following day. Pebble is a notable exception here — its devices could get several days on a charge, at least most of them. The Time Round was substantially below that. For the most part, smartwatches are another thing you have to plug in every night.

Here’s the big one: what are smartwatches good for? The use case is still unclear, and I don’t think any of the companies pushing them really have a good handle on it either. Look at Apple, which usually zeros in on features it can sell consumers on. The first Apple Watch did a lot of fancy smartwatch things with apps, and the second Apple Watch was basically the same product. So if you liked the first smartwatch, you’ll like the second one. There simply isn’t much you can do on a smartwatch that couldn’t be completed faster and with less aggravation on your phone. Why would you pay $300 or $400 for that?

The current smartwatches aren’t working, so something has to change. People are still interested in wearable technology like the Fitbit. These simpler wearables offer a clue as to how Apple, Google, and other companies might refocus their wearable efforts. Specifically, fitness tracking is important. Smartwatches are okay at this sometimes, but it’s like an afterthought. A lot of Wear devices don’t even have heart rate sensors.

One of the reasons fitness tracking is sub-par on smartwatches is that you have to take them off to charge too often. With better battery life, you can get more accurate numbers with faster sensor polling and wear the device overnight for sleep tracking. So, how do you improve battery life? Simplify. Apps on smartwatches might be a non-starter. If you don’t need to run apps, you can use lower-power hardware and a lower-resolution screen.

You can still do plenty with a watch that isn’t as powerful. For example, you could still monitor and act on notifications from your watch. That’s a perfectly reasonable use case, and saves you from dragging your phone out of your pocket every time there’s a beep. Voice commands can also work, as they’re relayed directly to the phone to do all the heavy lifting.

So, focus on notifications, fitness, voice, and battery life. This might be the way forward for smartwatches. Apple will keep pushing the second generation Apple Watch for another year or so, and it’ll probably continue to be the most successful smartwatch. That’s not really saying much, though. Meanwhile, Google will release Wear 2.0 in 2017, and there are rumors it will release its own Pixel watches alongside it. If that doesn’t get consumers interested in the current take on smartwatches, it might be time to rethink and simplify.

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