Are Wearables Just a Bad Sequel to the Smartphone? Part One

Editor's Note: In part one of a two part blog series, we discuss the history and current state of wearable technology, especially as it relates to fitness trackers. The fitness tracker industry is struggling and smartwatches seem to be headed down a similar path. What do smartwatches need to change course?

Wearable technology has been around since 1975 when the first calculator watch was introduced. Fitbit was launched in 2008 followed by the release of the smartwatch in 2013. Recently the news from certain segments of the wearable space suggests that wearables have not had the impact on the lives of consumers that was expected by some of the gurus who ponder such things. Jawbone has entered into liquidation. Fitbit sales are struggling. Apple's recent release of the next iteration of the Apple Watch was seen as a "yawner" by many. What're the haps?

Unfit Fitness Trackers?

Is there a cautionary tale to be gleaned from the attrition in the tracker space that might apply to smartwatches? It is worth noting that fitness trackers haven't changed much since their initial launch. In fact, despite the efforts by Apple and others to make us think otherwise, smartwatches haven't either. So, if the smartwatch doesn't evolve in the coming years, could it experience a fate similar to that of the fitness tracker? Could digital banking have any say in whether this possibility becomes a reality? Maybe.

When fitness trackers first came out, there was a definite novelty factor involved. One of the earliest, a bracelet from Nike, was probably meant to be more a means of promoting the company's other product lines than a representation of some new revolution in wearable tech. The launch of the smart watch was surrounded by a very similar type of hype - as are many devices produced by either manufacturer who has built their reputations - and brand value - on appealing to the desire to be a part of the "cool kids" club. 

The ability to produce this hype in the fitness tracker industry began to degrade in 2015 as manufacturers struggled to extend the functionality of these devices. Small features and design improvements have been made here and there, but, as a whole, the technology has remained the same. The introduction of the Fitbit Blaze was the closest thing to an attempted breakthrough but even if it had found more traction than it did, the launch was probably too little, too late before it ever happened. 

Does this Mean Tick Tock for the Smartwatch?

Is there a cautionary tale to be gleaned from the "dead man walking" state of affairs in one wearable niche that might apply to the other? Possibly, because the same prerequisite failures are being made by the smart watch companies have been made by those that put their brands on fitness trackers. In other words, smarwatches haven't changed much either since introduced. Yes, there are some more apps, meaning the consumer can try to do more things that are impossible on a 42mm screen. But, has any of that activity made the smartwatch a more indispensable part of the consumer's watch? Not that I can see. 

The difference between the smart in smartphones and the smart in smartwatches has to do with the fact that the former has embedded itself into our lives by providing numerous conveniences beyond just making or receiving a call while the latter has done little to none of that. That seems attributable, in large part, to the fact that smartwatch designers seem to be doing little more than creating a smartphone for our wrist. Instead, the mission should have been to create new levels of convenience for the user (best case) or extend certain conveniences from the smartphone with the smartwatch (minimal requirement). 

Meeting that minimal requirement of extending certain conveniences from the smartphone to the person's wrist is a lot more difficult than throwing some cool factors, e.g., the Dick Tracy wrist phone feature. To date, those who fancy themselves as the ones who dream up the next big thing are going to have to abandon the approach of cluttering the smartwatch with apps that are just smartphone redux. The preponderance of what we have seen from the development community for the smartphone thus far is precisely that. The smartphone required a wholly different mindset about the user interface and experience. There has been none of that with the smartwatch. It has rather been like a poorly made sequel.

Why not think about what makes a wrist-mounted device different, in terms of convenience, from a smartphone? For starters, the smartwatch typically is in a fixed place while the smartphone has to be continually tracked down since, for many of us they seem to possess an instinct predisposing them toward trying to escape from us at every turn. That fact - the fixed position of one versus the lack of such with the other - provides a very good starting place for insulating the smartwatch from the type of turbulence that has impacted adoption of fitness trackers.