Almost a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog that declared bluntly, “smartwatches are basically useless.” Now that Apple, with today’s announcement of the Apple Watch, has made the discussion around the usefulness of smartwatches relevant again, I’d like to revisit the topic.
My main argument about smartwatches was based on the idea of putting a smartphone on your wrist. Trying to make phone calls might actually be more difficult, unless you pair it with a Bluetooth-connected ear piece, which is only an option for those willing to walk around with multiple wearable devices on their bodies. Typing text messages and emails is inherently more difficult to do with one remaining free hand on a smaller screen awkwardly strapped atop the other wrist. Speak-to-text is only convenient in private settings, unless you want everyone around you to listen in as you compose your text messages and emails. The only real benefit of a smartwatch, from this perspective, is being able to decide whether an incoming call or message is worth taking out your phone.
The only potential for a smartwatch to become truly useful is for it to create a specific use case, the most likely being for health and fitness. With the Fitbit and Nike Fuelband, fitness is the one area where smartwatches have actually been successful. Fitness, however, is currently a niche market consisting only of those who exercise regularly (the valuable, repeat customers) and those who plan to exercise but forget they own a Fitbit after two weeks (the one-time buyers). Currently, a fitness device is not something that everybody can use, like a smartphone.
But what if a smartwatch can make health and fitness a mainstream, everyday use of technology? Seven years ago we didn’t know we would need GPS or banking apps, four social networks, or half-a-dozen different ways to send each other text messages. Then those apps suddenly became available and before long we were all using them.
Maybe the health sensors on devices like the Apple Watch, which monitors your heart rate and activity constantly, could become the tool people use to live healthier. The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler, reporting from the Apple event, wrote in the site’s live blog:
Apple Watch is supposed to be like a personal trainer, Apple says — it gets to know you and makes recommendations. That’s a lot to tackle.
It is, indeed, a lot to tackle, but seeing as we’re living through what the Center for Disease Control has officially labeled an “obesity epidemic,” it’s worth a shot. A lot of people want to live healthier but simply don’t know how. The International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2012 food and health survey found that the majority of Americans who responded think it’s easier to figure out their income taxes than it is to learn about health and nutrition. And they are willing to use technology to help; almost 60% of respondents to the survey said online and mobile tools are helpful for learning how to get in shape.
A mobile tool that stays constantly connected to users’ bodies, monitors their activity, and informs them of what they need to do differently to live healthier could be the answer. Think of the day-to-day use cases. If you had a big lunch, your wristwatch informs you how much you’ll need to exercise to make up for it. Or if you’ve had an active day, your watch lets you know what you should eat to refuel. Looking at it from this perspective, the smartwatch doesn’t need to be a smartphone worn on the wrist; it can be its own category of device.
How useful the Apple Watch is in this regard still remains to be seen. But if the iPhone showed us that we could have handled computing and communications better, it’s possible that the Apple Watch could show us how much better we can handle our personal health.