Have we figured out what we want in a smartwatch yet?

Kevin Tofel, Gigaom.com

Next month will be the one-year anniversary of Google’s smartwatch platform introduction. And the month after that will see the Apple Watch ship to its first buyers. While smartwatches have been around for far longer, it’s only been the last year or two where they’ve become viable enough for mainstream consumers to even consider purchasing.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing what we want from these wearable devices though, or rather if we’re at a point where smartwatches are compelling enough to generate hundreds of millions of sales. That’s partly why I wasn’t surprised to see reports of only 720,000 Android Wear devices shipped in 2014. There are other reasons of course: the first devices only started shipping in the middle of the year and the platform is brand new. But I think the central stumbling block to sales is convincing people that a smartwatch is worth buying.

Table stakes and notifications aren’t enough

At the moment, all of these devices offer what I’d call “table stakes” or the minimum you’d expect. That means they all have clock, alarm and stopwatch functions, for example. Of course, I’d hope a watch could actually tell the time, so this is pretty basic and obvious. Not all of them show the time constantly though, in order to save battery life.

The second functional level is pretty much there as well: Notifications. This is where the smartwatch receives texts, emails, incoming call info and other app data from the connected phone. Android Wear is pretty good at that, the Apple Watch will support these nuggets of information as well. And third-party smartwatches can do this too: Earlier this week, Pebble added full Android Wear notification support for its watches.

Health tracking helps a little

Telling time and having actionable notifications that you already have on the phone in your pocket isn’t enough though. Enter health tracking functions, which are handled through the sensors in these devices for the wrist. Nearly all have an accelerometer and/or gyroscope to track steps, movement and exercise. That’s a start.

Add in heart-rate monitors and you get more depth into the captured health data. Some, such as the Android Wear smartwatch I bought, include a dedicated GPS. Now we’re getting somewhere, because the Sony Smartwatch 3 breaks away from the connected phone for some functions and works as a standalone device.

Standalone devices vs. accessories

And that brings me to the crux of the problem when it comes to cracking the code for massive smartwatch sales: Most of the devices currently or soon available aren’t standalone devices. You need a Google Android phone for nearly all of the functions an Android Wear watch provides. The same holds true for the Apple Watch; you’ll need an iPhone to use the watch.

So the question becomes: How do you convince consumers to spend $200, $300 or more for device that is an accessory to the phone? I think that’s the biggest obstacle here before the smartwatch market can ever tout sales of 100 million or more devices.

Context is a plus, but is it enough?

Google has a bit of an edge here with Android Wear because it takes advantage of its own Google Now service. This provides contextual notifications that are optimized for consumption at a glance; precisely the type of useful information that works well on a watch and something I hoped for months before Google announced Android Wear.

Got a meeting coming? Your watch reminds you in advance. Is there traffic now that could impact travel time to your job? The watch will let you know. Essentially, Google Now on the wrist tells you things you need to know that you didn’t need you know. Although Apple’s Siri can’t do this yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an upgrade for the Apple Watch and this becomes a “killer feature” of the device.

Even so, this contextual conversation with timely, personal reminders still relies on the smartphone you already have, in which case you can get the same information and reminders from that phone. I’m hoping the Wi-Fi radio in my Sony Smartwatch 3 cuts that cord a little in the future. For now, we have to remember that smartwatches of today are still secondary to the phones we already have.

Are apps the answer?

Mobile apps helped propel smartphone adoption but I’m not yet sold that it will do the same for smartwatches. Sure, it’s handy to use an app optimized for the wrist when the phone is in your pocket. Does it add a tremendous amount of value? I’m not convinced; at least not yet.

There’s a convenience factor but it’s pretty limited. For the moment, these apps are simply a way to interact differently — and usually less so — with their full-featured smartphone cousins. App makers are also constrained on smartwatches with limited hardware and screen space; at a time when phones are getting bigger and there’s more room to work with, developers have to pick, choose and cram functions into a smartwatch app, often just mirroring similar information from the phone.

Pushing data from one screen to another isn’t worth $200 or more for most consumers. So it’s early days for this market and until we can find some other features or functions we want in a smartwatch — and device makers have the technology to implement them — this market is still one for high-priced accessories where the value proposition isn’t yet compelling for most people.