Smartwatches: I hate to say ‘I told you so’. But I told you so.

Can someone put these fat costly clunkers out of their misery?

Mickey Mouse watch. Pic: Joe Haupt

Comment If you work in software, I’ll bet you worked on a project like this. It’s where dozens, or even hundreds of people are involved in the spec process, and what tumbles out is a monster that nobody ever wanted.

The IA-432 processor, Intel’s first pre-Itanic disaster, was a classic example. It was a tabula rasa, and every fashionable idea going was scribbled onto it. Object-oriented hardware was pretty fashionable at the time. It would be object-oriented. When the 432 silicon was finally built, it ran at a fraction of the speed of other 32-bit processors. Another more recent example. In the early Noughties, the BBC’s iPlayer was envisaged as a sophisticated P2P client, and at one stage had over 400 people involved in spec meetings. iPlayer only rolled out after the team had been reduced to around 15 – and the doors were bolted shut.

Today’s wearables are a classic examples of the same process. Apple Watch and Google Wear devices are expensive and massively over engineered, and at the end of the day, the inconvenience outweighs the convenience. Both Apple Watch and Android Wear were devised in fear of one stealing a march on the other. They were also, like Intel’s 432 and the original iPlayer, quite open-ended, with lots of Yeses at spec meetings, and not many Nos. Both Apple and Google are now seeking to revive their respective platforms. (Of the rest, Samsung’s Gear S2 is the best of the bunch, but only because the big Two are so awful. The S2 is also expensive, and brings little practical convenience.)

Naturally you’d expect us to gloat a bit. It’s over two years since Android Wear was unveiled and personally, the future of smartwatches was mapped out in Google’s launch promo – a video we embedded at the time. This dramatised various use cases. But to make smartwatches seem even remotely relevant, the ad directors had hobbled the field, removing from the video anyone who had a smartphone. So people aren’t really doing anything with their smartwatches they wouldn’t do if they had a phone in their hand. They’re still a solution looking for a problem: Take Apple Watch.

(No, please, somebody take Apple’s Watch! I’m here all week.)

Why does a smartwatch need to have a local cache of MP3 files? Well, the use case put forward is that the owner goes jogging, but still wants to hear some music, but doesn’t want to take calls. So the Apple Watch can store music locally, but your calls go back to voicemail, on wherever you’ve left your iPhone. Can you listen to your voicemail remotely? Yes, but... only on the few Android Wear watches that support a SIM card. On Apple Watch, the answer is No. There are many more examples of “Wouldn’t it be cool if...?” conversations making the product bloated here.

The overspecification has given us two highly complex UI, absurdly so on the Apple Watch, and both platforms are due a little improvement. I find the Android Wear UI more streamlined than Apple's but in its own way it's compromised. Wear today is actually really poor at Notifications, which once swiped away, are lost.

Two years ago we predicted failure: “Wearables today simply don't add much convenience to our lives - but still incur at considerable cost and inconvenience of their own. Give me a wearable that I didn't ever have to recharge, or only needed to recharge once a month, that cost under £20, and that gave reliable notifications of calls or messages received on my phone, and instantly gave me a zoomable map - and maybe then we're talking.”

Not very controversial stuff – but even at £99 or £149 isn’t much of a market. Pebble’s very loveable enthusiast watches cost only a bit more, and Pebble recently pivoted to attract fitness enthusiasts.

Some optimists, such as CCS Insight’s Ben Wood, think that payments and smartcard access could emerge as the “killer use case”. But then Ben also notes that on public transport turnstiles in London, the smartcard reader is optimised for right-handed cards, not left-armed-smartwatches. So when you see somebody using an Apple Watch to get through the Tube paddles, they have to do this uncomfortable pivot and pirouette. I know – we could redesign all the Tube turnstiles! But I doubt we will.

Quite sensibly, Wood concludes: “Don't think of the Apple Watch here, but a £50 Fitbit with a payment chip in it."

Thanks for the lipstick. But it's still a pig

That doesn’t help Apple or Google smartwatches too much. Nothing in Android Wear 2.0 hints at a new use case, and the UX is complicated further with a greater reliance on physical controls and a quite wacky swipe keyboard.

There’s no getting away from it, these expensive watches are clunkers. And I’ll make a new prediction: they always will be. The whole kitchen-sink platform approach to wearables looks mistaken. The strategy presumed that if you threw enough electronics into the watch it would eventually find a use case, and over time that would reach a mass market price point. But not all electronics fit that neat narrative.

Think about the small but useful bits of electronics, like a TV remote or wireless car keys, that are fantastically useful at one thing, but don’t merit a standalone market, because they are always bundled with something else. (Try buying a TV or a car without one of these). Only fitness wearables, with limited functionality and the ability to do one thing really well, have shown much promise in the wearable category, and I don't see joggers with a £99 necessarily making the leap to a clunkier multipurpose £299 gadget because it's the same brand.

Perhaps a wearable will only ever be something that’s bundled with a smartphone in the future? I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s smartwatches will be the last we see for a very long time. ®

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