Wearables: Doomed or darlings of the next decade?

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Do you own a wearable yet? Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac
Do you own a wearable yet? Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

After outselling all Android Wear watches within 24 hours, Apple Watch looked set to be the device that would finally give smartwatches their big break. But according to a recent report, sales of Cupertino’s first wearable have since nosedived 90%.

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2It’s wise to take that report with a pinch of salt, but it got us thinking; if Apple’s first smartwatch really is a flop, which company can make a wearable worth wearing, and do wearable devices have a future at all?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we battle it out over that very question.

Killian-FNFKillian Bell (Writer, Cult of Android): I’ve been interested in wearables for many years. I bought the original Pebble, I have a Moto 360 and previously owned other Android Wear watches, and I’ve got an Apple Watch, which I think is terrific.

But despite it initial success, the latter is currently being branded a flop, which again leads us to question whether wearable gadgets really have a future. What are you thoughts?

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl (Writer, Cult of Mac): Well, I think anyone claiming the Apple Watch is a flop based on the data we’ve seen so far is an idiot. Slice, which released the information suggesting sales had dropped 90% since launch, is only basing its figures on a fraction of the market based on e-receipts it personally analyzes.

Apple hasn’t released any numbers yet, although Jeff Williams has said Apple’s “happy” with them. I have used an Apple Watch, but I’m yet to buy one, since I don’t currently see enough differentiation from what my iPhone can do to make it worthwhile. But, like you, I’ve used a variety of wearables over the years. I’m currently using the new Jawbone UP 4.

My issue with wearables isn’t that there’s not the germ of a good idea there. There clearly is. My issue is that I don’t think we’ve necessarily found the form factor yet that’s going to make it the thing everyone’s excited about. I wasn’t convinced it was Google Glass-style glasses, and I’m not convinced it’s smartwatches either.

I’m not even sure the next big mass-market consumer technology is going to be worn on the body, despite everything we keep hearing about the coming wearables revolution.

Killian-FNFKB: I’m glad we agree on the Apple Watch sales stories. It’s kind of funny that data like that makes big headlines, but I suppose when it comes to Apple’s latest devices, anything’s a story. I also agree that there is no future in Google Glass; very few people want to use a gadget that makes them look silly.

But I firmly believe that smartwatches are a good form factor, and that they have a great future ahead. The problem right now is that too many people expect too much from them. They’re an extension of our smartphones that make our lives easier in the simplest of ways, and that’s how it should be. Who wants to replace a smartphone with a wearable with a tiny display?

Could you live with this -- and only this?
Could you live with this — and only this?
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: That’s part of it. Here’s the thing, though — I think everyone’s thinking too small when it comes to wearables.

Basically for the past 30-40 years, tech has been stuck trying to bring us updated versions of things we already knew. The graphical user interface took as its metaphor the idea of an office — desktops, trash cans, etc. — which made us comfortable using them on a screen because we already used them in reality. The iPhone, meanwhile, wasn’t really a mobile phone but rather a computer that happened to make phone calls. But Apple sold it as a phone because that’s what people are familiar with.

Now we’re at the end of that narrative, I think. We don’t need to take items we’re already familiar with and give them a sci-fi makeover. Digital watches had already been largely replaced by the smartphone. Perhaps the one familiar area we still need reinventing is the car.

Wearables make sense as an example of something that we have that we can imagine being “smarter” but the problem is that no-one’s demanding it. It’s never going to be as big as smartphones because it’s totally non-essential. When people, possibly like yourself, talk about wearables like the smartwatch as being these great devices for controlling the smart home I feel you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m more excited about devices like the Amazon Echo, to be honest

Killian-FNFKB: But there are things smartwatches do that your iPhone can’t. Apple Watch is a terrific fitness tracker, one that not only tells you how many steps you’ve taken and what your heart rate is during a workout, but also motivates you to keep working out on a regular basis. It makes your smartphone even more useful, and even more integral.

But people need to realize that it’s a smartphone accessory, and not a do-it-all gadget out of Star Trek Wars that’s going to take over every other device you own. I think when that happens, smartwatches will be much more successful, and we won’t be continually questioning whether or not they have a future.

Yes, wearables are non-essential to most people, but so is the smartphone, so is the tablet, so is the TV. Many of us could live without these things, but they make our lives easier and more enjoyable, and smartwatches do the same.

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: Sure. But you’re setting the bar very low here. You’re talking about smartwatches like they’re glorified selfie-sticks: things which are fun accessories for very specific circumstances. I’m talking about about the next big thing in tech.

A company like Apple either wants to create things which become the next iPhone, or help sell more iPhones. If you’re already lumping smartwatches into the latter category I think that proves why wearables aren’t ready to hit the big time yet. Simply put, there is very little that a smartwatch can currently do that a phone can’t. You can even get iPhone cases which can monitor your heart rate if that’s what you’re into.

The Amazon Echo.
The Amazon Echo.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Killian-FNFKB: But what we’re debating here is whether smartwatches have a future. They don’t have to be “the next big thing in tech” to have a future. They can be hugely successful without being as revolutionary as the iPod or the iPhone.

I don’t believe Apple only wants to sell products that are as successful as the iPhone. If that was true, why does it continue to pursue the Apple TV, and why hasn’t it ditched the iPod and the Mac mini already?

You can get iPhone cases that monitor heart rate, but not everyone wants to workout with an iPhone. That’s why there are other digital watches with heart rate monitors built-in. But Apple Watch does so much more. It may not be groundbreaking, but it packs a ton of innovation that many people overlook. Force Touch and the Taptic Engine are excellent — and they’ve already made their way into other Apple devices. The Digital Crown is incredibly intuitive. And how many watches let you swap straps in 30 seconds at the touch of a button?

The biggest problem smartwatches face right now is that the vast majority of consumers don’t really understand them. But like a lot of other Apple products, it just makes sense when you use it.

cartoonluke_360.pngLD: I can’t entirely agree. The truth is that there are plenty of businesses Apple could get into that it could break even on or make a slight profit on. But based on the hype wearables have gotten, they’re not meant to be a niche product that’s only ever going to improve certain aspects of your phone.

I think a good parallel is going to turn out to be the Newton. At first glance, that makes it sound like I’m slating it. The first-gen Newton was a flop, but it turned out to be a hugely influential device once its best ideas came of age and were moved to the right device.

I think that’s going to be the future of smartwatches too. Health-tracking, home automation, all these exciting fields are going to fit far better into other products — whether it’s additional features on your smartphone or standalone devices like the Echo which serve as the hub to our new smart homes.

Killian-FNFKB: Well, we’ll have to wait and see, but I’m confident that wearables — smartwatches in particular — will be around a long time. I don’t think Apple would have made the Apple Watch if it didn’t believe that, either. I’m not denying they don’t need improvement, and that will come as the technology improves. But having used a smartwatch for all kinds of things over the past couple of years, my smartphone just wouldn’t feel complete without one now.

I think it would be a good idea to turn it over to the readers at this point. What are your thoughts on smartwatches? Will we still be wearing them in five years, or will we look back and wonder what all these technology giants were thinking?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?