The presentation and upcoming launch of the Apple Watch has put a major spotlight on the smartwatch category. There still are many questions about the market potential of the category overall as well as about the potential of Apple’s new gadget, which the company tries to position against classic high-end and luxury watches instead of other smartwatches.
According to some comments I have read in the wake of the Apple Watch presentation, one of the alleged benefits of mini-computer watches is that this new kind of product frees us from our smartphones. Smartwatches in general and the Apple Watch specifically would reduce the need to pull out the phone. This would save people time and give them back some awareness about their environments, since they would just perform brief glances on their watch, instead of being glued to their smartphone displays for extensive amounts of time.
The problematic “freeing us from the smartphone” narrative
I do not want to make any predictions about whether the Apple Watch will succeed. But I’d like to highlight one particular aspect that in my eyes has not received any attention at all, even though it is crucial to the validity of the “smartwatches free people from their smartphones” narrative: The question whether people actually want to have this kind of “freedom”. My answer would be a “no”, which is why I do not find this specific argumentation persuading at all.
There certainly are scenarios when pulling out the phone is a burden. During fitness activities obviously (which is why many smartwatches have been partly or fully promoted as fitness and health trackers), or when you are sitting at a restaurant with a huge group of friends and have the time of your life. Or when you are standing at the street corner, quickly wanting to check the Map application to see whether you are walking into the right direction. These are most certainly scenarios when a smartwatch offers a superior experience over a smartphone, simply because it means a little bit less hassle.
But Americans, for example, now spend on average 177 minutes with their mobile devices every day. This number indicates that the scenarios described in the previous paragraph just make up for a small share of the total smartphone usage. The majority of smartphone usage minutes does not happen in situations when people perceive the process to pull out the smartphone as a burden. They happen at home, during the commute to work, at school and university, during lunch break at the office, in waiting rooms and lines, at cafés, bars and restaurants (when not with others) and in many other situations where no external factors prevent people from using their phones. There is no reason to believe that people would even want to stop staring extensively at their phones, even if they would wear an Apple Watch which delivers the most important information bits, notifications and messages to them. Most people love using their smartphones. Sure, they might also hate the urge to constantly open certain kind of apps (“Why did i just open Facebook/Twitter/Instagram again?”). Still, there is so much value being offered from these powerful computers with their increasingly big, beautiful screens, that the assumption that people would just skip this for something much smaller and more limited in the majority of use cases does not seem very plausible.
Looking at your smartphone or not is a social signal
Also, one of the most overlooked reasons for why people pull out their smartphones – even if they might not actually have anything specific they want to do – is the social signal it sends. In many social environments, staring at the phone is like having a sign around your neck saying “Do not disturb”. People use this all the time when being around strangers in non-dynamic settings. Sitting alone in a café or at the bar? Standing in the subway? Waiting at the hairdresser? Standing in the restroom queue? If you are not in the mood to chat with strangers, the best thing you can do is to pretend you are busy with your phone.
As we now, there are people who complain that smartphones make us unware of our surroundings and disconnect us from the outside world. While this may be true sometimes, another truth is that we often do not want to just sit and stare. Especially not if it means staring at other people who stare as well – or, maybe even worse, at other people who socialize in groups, while you are alone. Fortunately, we have our smartphones. They let us escape any kind of awkward and uncomfortable setting. People love this about smartphones, even though I believe most are not aware of it. Smartphones are much more than a computer in our pocket – they are also a tool for us to control the physical social settings we experience throughout the day.
Neither smartwatches nor Argumented Reality glasses nor smart contact lenses can compete with this. These tools lack the smartphone’s capability of indicating our willingness or refusal to social interactions. Yes, you could just stare at your smartwatch for extensive periods of time. But you would end up feeling extremely weird. And if the public reception of Google Glass taught us anything it is that most of us actually care about not to look like a dork for longer amounts of time (holding a selfie stick for a minute is ok, though).
That is why the prediction I am willing to make is that smartwatches will remain a niche product. Their benefits are very specific and many consumers will not feel convinced that the notion of a bit time and hassle saved justifies the expense. Cheap smartwatches will be great for health and fitness tracking, whereas the Apple Watch might end up becoming quite a status object within the group of luxury watch buyers. But we should not make a mistake: In the end, a smartphone can do almost everything a smartwatch can do, and it offers so much more. Selling the notion of giving people the freedom to stop looking at their smartphones as a major benefit of a smartwatch can work in certain use cases, but generally completely misses the point of why people are so attached to their smartphones.