Spending time with family over the holidays, there came a moment where nearly everyone in the room was looking at their smartphone. One person was making a video call to friends and family far away. Others were looking at photos that had just been snapped and shared to a group. And younger folks were playing games or checking social media.

10 years ago it would have been hard to imagine this scene. Most adults in the room probably had cellphones a decade ago. But smartphones that could do all those things? Those were a niche category still in its infancy.

It’s a stage most new technologies have to go through. HDTV and 4K TV sets were too expensive for anyone but early adopters to buy at first. Now it’s hard to find a TV that’s not at least 720p.

But what about wearables? Will they ever graduate from a niche technology? The analysts at eMarketer have looked at the latest sales trends, and they’re not too optimistic.

According to eMarketer, the number of adults in the US with a “wearable” device reached 44.7 million, or about 17.7% of the population in 2017. And most of those devices were fitness trackers, not smartwatches.

The firm expects the numbers to climb to 50.1 million (19.6%) next year, but growth is expected to stay in the single digits for the next few years.

When wearables were newer, there were projections suggesting big growth year after year. And you could argue that the technology still hasn’t matured, so shoppers are still waiting for the must-have device that hasn’t yet been launched.

But while smartphones offered an always-connected news, information, communication, gaming, and entertainment platform that was unlike anything that had really preceded them, smartwatches… basically offer a subset of those features. On your wrist.

Until wearables can actually replace a smartphone, they’ll always be more of an accessory that gives you a new way to interact with your phone. And they’re pretty expensive gadgets if all they do is save you the few seconds it might take to fish your phone out of your bag or pocket.

Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if eMarketer’s wrong and that instead of slow growth in the coming years we’ll actually see negative growth. Or maybe we’ll get to the point where smartwatch makers come up with a killer app that really does make them a must-have.

Even with 4G-ready models hitting the streets, I have a hard time imagining watches replacing smartphones anytime soon. The popularity of big-screen phone suggests that people aren’t looking for gadgets with a smaller display.

But maybe one day a Google Glass/Microsoft Hololens/Magic Leap-style augmented reality device will do the trick. A wearable gadget that puts a virtual screen right in front of your eyes and which also offers all the features of a smartphone does seem like it could be a step up from the smartphone experience… if device makers can offer a heads-up display with all-day battery life and a design that doesn’t make you look like a monster in a B movie.

Or maybe we’ll just keep using phones as our primary mobile computing devices, and gadget makers will keep trying to come up with other things for us to spend money on. eMarketer says the future of smart speakers still looks pretty bright.

via Business Insider

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19 replies on “Report: smartwatches will probably always be niche devices”

  1. FWIW, I work at a Best Buy and smart watches (specifically the a-watch 3) sell well here. When I work in the Apple section it’s pretty normal to sell between five and ten a day.

  2. The issue I see is that too many of these watches try to be a phone on your wrist, or try and replicate what you do on your phone. Really, I don’t want to make calls on my wrist, or browse the web. Give me Alexa or Google Assistant and a clear speaker on my wrist, a non-reflective screen (like Pebble), allow it to show me only things I need to look at quickly (an email, the next GPS turn, the name of the song, etc) and a few days battery life. Much of this they can do already, which is great. They just try to pack in so many other things that they don’t need, which cause these watches to grow too large in size, and make them overly complicated.

    Just my 2 cents.

  3. I tried an expensive “Smart” watch not long ago. The short battery life was annoying, it was big and bulky, and the thing that bothered me most was the display wasn’t always on. After a few days I decided the problems far outweighed the few benefits I got with the thing and gave it back to its owner, who didn’t use it for all the same reasons. The technology just isn’t there yet for a really useful and affordable general-use smart watch.

    In the end, I went back to using the finest wrist watch ever made, the $28 all metal quartz analog Casio MTP-1239D-D7A with second hand and day+date display. (The MTP-1239D-1A is the black face version, which I find much harder to read in dark settings.) See here:

    https://www.amazon.com/Casio-Dress-Three-Hand-watch-MTP1239D7A/dp/B000GBPDK0/ref=sr_1_1?s=apparel&ie=UTF8&qid=1514365813&sr=1-1&nodeID=7141123011&psd=1&keywords=MTP-1239D

    This watch is highly accurate and impeccably made. You can really feel the quality of the movement when adjusting the time, day, and date via the two-level stem, heck the second hand even stops when you pull the crown so you can set the time accurately! The build quality continues on through the bracelet which has a clasp with a dual-button release. In my experience, battery life is at least three years. A quality watch with all these features from any other major brand would set you back 5 to 10 times more.

    1. You know what’s better?
      A proper Casio. Something that’s squarish, light, digital, and has enough battery for 10 years.
      My AE1200 “Casio Royale” does so, with some retro-flair to boot.

      1. @Kangal,

        Yeah, I lean hard towards analog when it comes to a watch display, the man-machine information transfer efficiency with an analog display is far higher than that from an alphanumeric display. That’s why analog “steam” gauges are mimicked in modern “all-glass” digital cockpits.Even your Casio AE1200’s design with its digital version of an analogue watch face acknowledges the superiority of an analog display.

        As for build quality and durability, the analog Casio watch is far better than the AE1200 design. The AE1200 series has a a black plastic overlay coating and the “crystal” is made of acrylic or resin, not tempered glass. There’s nothing like that going on with the analog Casio MTP-1239 series.

        Casio’s low-end digital watches like the AE1200 series are all made in China today. But on my analog Casio MTP-1239D-D7A, the watch back is clearly stamped: “JAPAN MOV’T Cased in China”. That may explain why the MTP-1239D is so accurate. The timing crystal is likely being precisely adjusted in Casio’s undoubtedly fully-automated Japanese assembly line.

        As for price, plastic-cased Casio watches similar to the AE1200 (with the Casio 3299 Module) can be had for around $15, but once you put the 3299 Module in a metal case and add a metal bracelet, the street price pushes upwards of $35 (e.g. AE1200WHD-1A), 25% more than the $28 price of the analog Casio MTP-1239D-D7A with stainless steel case and bracelet.

        You do correctly point out the digital watch gets better battery life, 10 years versus 3 years for the quartz analog model. But I consider that a minor disadvantage compared with all the advantages afforded by the analog Casio MTP-1239 series.

        And one more thing: With the Casio AE1200 on your wrist, everybody is going to think you are either weird, or that you just stepped out of a time machine from 1983 (grow your hair out into a Mullet to add to the affect). That’s not going to happen with the timelessly classic design of the Casio MTP-1239 watch line.

  4. Wearable is more a jewelry then a smartphone replacement. The market will grow as people will replace regular watches with smart ones.

  5. My main problem is that I don’t want to charge my watch every few days.
    Once mid/far field wireless charging is a more common feature, I’d be interested again.

  6. Frankly I don’t see a Dick Tracy phone watch (Google it) every becoming a mainstream product rather than a status symbol.

    However, the potential for watches as medical devices is big. Many of us would buy a watch for an elderly relative that detect a fall and one that detects a heart attack would have an even wider market. Research is also looking into glucose monitors for diabetics. And there’s the possibility of air quality monitors for asthmatics and allergy sufferers.

    So smartwatches aren’t dead, they just need to find their way.

  7. I’m still waiting for a decent (and not too bulky) smartwatch that I can use for running. My current short list is the Apple watch and the Samsung GearFit Pro2. The watches should be waterproof, contain on-board GPS, bluetooth and music playing capabilities. Then I won’t need to carry my phone on runs but can still accurately track it and listen to music if I want.

    1. To be honest I don’t really see the need for a smartwatch and the horrible battery life makes those too annoying for me. I needed a new GPS/step counter/HR monitor and ended up getting a Garmin Forerunner 235 earlier this year. Overall it does pretty much all I need and keeps me motivated by tracking movement and only needs to be charged every 3-5 days (depending on how much I run with the GPS).

  8. “Spending time with family over the holidays, there came a moment where nearly everyone in the room was looking at their smartphone.”

    That is the best reason for families to get together — so that they can ignore each other and just spend time with their electronic devices.

    1. Username checks out.

      PS, on another note, I still stand by what I said before.
      Smartwatches will replace smartphones when two distinct things happen. Firstly, people will wear two bands on their wrists and a hologram will shine into both palms. Secondly, this solution is of relative quality as in has, relatively fast processing, decent battery life, not too bulky, not too heavy, and is waterproof and sturdy.

      Then people can watch 3D hologram videos in their hands. Use their fingers to interact with 3D objects. Play video games comfortably. And share things with others. It will kill Apple, Google, and Microsoft together. It is a trillion dollar proposition, however, it requires science and technology to move ahead in said field. The first country to pioneer this technology will leapfrog other countries on the basis of their market footing.

    2. Did you only read the first sentence of this article? The very next sentence doesn’t make it out as anti-social as you misquoted:

      “One person was making a video call to friends and family far away. Others were looking at photos that had just been snapped and shared to a group. And younger folks were playing games or checking social media.”

  9. I agree with the “until they can replace” comment, and add that’s probably going to be dependent on battery technology (and more efficient chips). I really do not want to have something hanging on my wrist again, but I’d put up with that if I no longer had to deal with handing a smartphone.

  10. ” … they’ll always be more of an accessory that gives you a new way to interact with your phone.”

    YES. Please just let them be this. I like my smart phone and I can’t replace it with a tiny screened handicapped thing. I like my Pebble Time and Pebble 2. I want a Pebble 3. An always on watch, controls my phone, acts on my voice, tracks my health, and runs for 5+ days at a time. For less than $200.

    Now that the Pebble has died the entire smartwatch market is devices similar to Apple’s and Samsung’s products. And they are useless as a smartwatch for people like me.

    1. That’s what the Smartwatch market is missing. Pebble was the forerunner using e-ink screens; Fitbit saw the threat, so they just bought them out. Not sure if I’ll even buy another Smartwatch after my own Pebble dies.
      The Xiaomi activity trackers quality and price can’t be beat.

      1. It’s a (relatively) free market. If the opportunity exists, then another player will move in and provide that alternative: affordable wearable, simple, with a week-long battery life.

        I don’t see anyone jumping on it yet, so it might mean its a slow market sector.
        Or it might mean there is no market (profitability) for such a good.

    2. This! You’ll have to pry my Pebble Time Steel from my cold dead hands! Literally, I sleep with this thing! If the LiPo battery takes about 1000 charges like regular LiPo batteries do, this’ll run for the next 15-20 years (since I only need to charge it about every 10 days). I can also develop apps and watchfaces and sideload onto it, so I don’t really mind services going down – that would kill a Wear or an iDevice. Also a free OS alternative is in the works, although it would be nice if Fitbit released the sourcecode of the Pebble OS, since they don’t really plan to do anything with it. Anyways, even though the company went down more than a year ago the Pebble is here to stay with us as a part of IT history and a device people keep using for years after it’s been announced dead. Just like the C=64 and Amiga have developers to this very day.

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