Smartwatches aren't the next big thing. The next big thing is already here

Smartwatches aren't the next big thing. The next big thing is already here

Summary: One chart shows why it's going to be an uphill battle for smartwatch makers to convince buyers to hand over their cash. History is repeating itself, while the real gadget innovation is coming from another direction.


Small screens, tiny batteries, a general air of nerdiness and no particular reason to exist: it's never been easy selling smartwatches and it's not going to get any easier anytime soon.

Samsung was first off the blocks this time around with the release of the Galaxy Gear, and has apparently shipped 800,000 of the smartwatch (although it's unclear how many it has sold). But despite plenty of rumours that they're working on rival timepieces, few of the other big players (Google, Apple, or Microsoft in particular) seem especially keen to join the smartwatch race, leaving it to startups, Kickstarter-powered projects and fitness bands to make most of the running.

The real problem with smartwatches is the lack of discernible interest from consumers, outside of niche (mostly sports) users. Of course, if you ask people what they want, it's well known they'll only ever demand a faster horse, so it's always how to gauge how consumer interest in nascent products and technologies will develop.

This Google Trends graph sums up that consumer apathy problem neatly. At the moment, the only people interested in wearable tech are the staff of the tech companies that are making it.

smartwatches smartphones
This Google Trends chart shows the relative interest in the terms 'smartwatch' in blue and 'smartphone' in red.

It's worth noting that I tried to create a similar Google Trends chart for the terms 'iPhone' and 'iWatch' but such is the difference in the scale of interest it just didn't work — and it's perhaps relevant that the iWatch rumours have dried up in recent months.

The same problems (and more) face other wearable devices such as Google Glass-style smartglasses: unless you wear glasses already, you probably won't want such headsets at all. And if you do wear glasses, you probably won't want to wear something so bulky and dorky — or, if you did, your friends, family and colleagues probably wouldn't be keen on having you hanging around looking like a bipedal security camera.

Some have tried to make a case for smartglasses in the workplace, but the real-life applications remain distinctly limited; and, for most use cases (taking or watching videos, for example), a smartphone can already do those jobs very well.

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Vendors are keen on wearable smart devices because they're worried about saturation in the smartphone market and low margins in the tablet world (and decline in PC sales). But can wearables really provide an alternative revenue stream worth having?

The current or next crop of wearable gadgets are mainly viewed as companion devices. That means either an additional cost for consumers — meaning they won't fly in developing markets or with price-senstive buyers elsewhere — or they'll end up being bundled with other devices such as smartphones or tablets for free. As a result, they'll only ever offer incremental revenue on top of smartphones, rather than being the brand new revenue stream that investors are craving.

It's tempting to see the smartwatch (and wearable tech in general) as falling into the same category as the paperless office and the cashless society: something that's always going to be just another five years away. But it's more likely that the smartwatch is running through the same cycle as the tablet did a decade ago: pretty much every tech company saw the opportunity but nobody could make it work until Apple built the iPad. Simillarly, all of the usual suspects have been building smartwatches for years without getting the package right.

Smartwatches and wearables could be running round that circuit for another five years yet before one company puts all the right elements together to create a must-have device. As with so much hardware in this market, much depends on what Apple decides to do.

But the biggest reason smartwatches will find the going tough in the short tem at least is that there's actually plenty of innovation still left in the smartphone.

Smartphone designs were much more excitingly polymorphous before the cold black slab of glass become the default imposed by the state of the art touchscreen model — think of all the amazing Nokia designs of yesteryear. Advances such as curved screens could rescue the smartphone from it's black mirror design doldrums.

Similarly, smartphone payments, imaging, and better battery life are areas with a lot of development work ahead. As such, the curved and flexible screens just entering the mainstream will be a much bigger deal for consumers than another wearable gadget they just don't understand.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States. 

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Topics: Emerging Tech, Smartphones

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  • Look towards Cupertino for the next big thing...

    We'll all know the next big thing as soon as Apple releases it. While Microsoft loses money on Surface tablets and their Touch phones, and Google loses money on their huge kludgy smart watch, Apple is secretly working on the next big thing which we can only guess at. Apple has learned some very hard lessons. They've become more secretive than ever. There will not be another Samsung stealing Apple IP. All the other players wait with baited breath, ready to rip off, I mean innovate on Apple's new entry in the electronic's industry. A good example of Apple being able to hide their new innovations, was the release of a 64 bit chip in new iDevices. We're seeing the competition scrambling try to match Apple's latest technology grab. They're at least a year away from releasing anything to compete with Apple. So I will look towards Cupertino for the next big thing, along with everybody else. For now, only Apple knows what that is.
    • Overestimating them a bit, aren't we?

      Sure, Apple tends to make good choices, but I think you're giving them a little too much credit.

      The iPhone and iPad were great ideas, but they've done some really dumb things before (G4 Cube).

      Also, having 64-bit architecture isn't actually that innovative.
      • gtdworak

        Do not feed the troll.
        • You are the troll!

          Do you want to starve?
      • Funny thing, is you say that now, but

        if it wasn't for the iPhone, Android would not be around. MS had innovated a lot of these things, but never took off. Apple did get it to take off. And it's funny, the PC didn't take off which Apple invented, until MS/IBM made it mainstream.
        • Actually

          Android would be around it would just be the BB Clone it was originally. Remember Android was in the works for quite some time prior to iOS but was slated to be an alternative OS to be loaded on WM devices and it featured a BB-OS like UI.
          • Keep pumping it out...

            All the good little Appleites rewriting history.Just one thing - did Apple invent the PDA? 'cause the iPhone followed the standard PDA format at the time ("candybar" touchscreen with icons). so, if anybody else follows this format, you say they are ripping off Apple… so now Apple invented the PDA, and players like HP and Compaq never existed.
            Also please explain how you know that Google using this format means they stole the OS from Apple, rather than they followed the same trend Apple did? And how exactly did a board member get hold of the iPhone design spec? Did he sneak into the engineering department with a fake moustache and hack into the design system? Did he have others working with him, like a whole spy ring? Or do you think that Jobs was stupid enough to show technical details to board members from other high-tech firms (like Jobs saw at Xerox?).
            Let's see some details - exactly what information did Google get? And if it was technical design data or code, how did they get it, because it sure wasn't given to the board.
            If you are saying that Schmidt (sp?) saw a candybar design with icons, and that was enough that Google could steal the OS, then you got nothin, cause almost every PDA on the market at the time was similar.
            You are trying to rewrite history (Apple invented the PC? Not a hope!) based on the assertions of a paranoid schizophrenic and a lot of wishful thinking.
          • Is that a serious question?

            Did Apple invent the PDA? As a matter of fact, they did.
            Robert Hahn
          • Actually, Apple didn't invent the first

            The first "PDA" released was the Psion the Organizer I, in 1984.

            Apple coined the term "PDA", so techinally, yes. In reality, many consider the Organizer II as the worlds first PDA, 9 years before the Newton.
          • Wikipedia

            Wikipedia is based on an openly editable model. A link to Wikipedia should not be used to establish facts. Serious researchers will tell you this.
          • "Did Apple invent the PDA?" Yes.

            Many of the pekple who are not old enough to remember the Challenger Seven (as in the seven astronauts who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded) are not capable of believing anything worth noting happened before 1990. Apple invented a device called the Newton starting in 1987 and ceased production in 1994. Palm did not start making their devices until 1996.

            True, Apple did not build or manufacture the first personal computer, but they marketed the first computer to home users, and they created the first spreadsheet program, making the computer actually usable for people other than hobbyists. The first affordable computers were based on the 6502 microprocessor, and were built by companies like Atari, Commodore, Timex and others. The so-called 'standardization' you allude to had nothing to do with a superior platform. The Commodore VIC-20 had sound. The Atari 400 had color graphics. The Apple IIe had a GUI operating system. All of this happened in the 80's while Microsoft was still selling its rip-off of the CP/M operating system known as MS-DOS and IBM computers were experimenting with changing from monochrome to black and white monitors. By the way, the Commodore and Atari computers could use a standard television set for a monitor long before the same could be done by IBM computers.

            If you are going to bad-mouth a company, at least know what you are talking about. Apple did get there first. They did not always get it right, but they did it first. As for the GUI being invented by Xerox, that is correct, but the executives at Xerox fired the guy who created it and they were not going to do anything with it. That is proof that sometimes the big corporations are too foolish to know what to make of a new idea. That is why Microsoft was late in coming to the Internet (aside from the fact that their system's security vanished when you connected it to any network), why IBM no longer makes personal computers, and why HP's WebOS did not gain any acceptance. It is also why Blackberry is no longer a force to be reckoned with in the smartphone market.
            Garry Hurley Jr
          • VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet, was not written by Apple

            VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet, was not written by Apple.
            Dan Bricklin did Apple the favor of writing VisiCalc to run on the Apple computer.
            Having the first spreadsheet was probably a big factor in Apple's success.
            It helps to be both lucky and good.
          • you're clearly thick and have trouble reading.

            The Psion Organiser was around in 1984 so no Apple didn't do jack.
          • Did Apple invent...

            Your statement is like rejecting VanGogh his credits because the caveman invented painting. Nonsense.
        • .....BS

          Way to rewrite history........Apple no more invented the PC than you invented time.
          Do a simple search little one....
        • Apple invented the PC?

          You are kidding right? IBM validated the concept of a PC as an access method for reaching mainframes and mini computers as well as embracing stand alone computing. PCs were hobby tools mostly until IBM blessed the platform. That's the gun that went off. Apple? Overt decision to avoid following IBMs lead. Better to embrace the idea but not the technology. Xerox supplied the rest.
          • Actually...

            IBM scrambled to get out a PC to stave off the threat of Apple's devices. And yes, they designed them to integrate with IBM mainframes, which Apple did not really care about doing.

            I remember reading an article back in the early 80's about why IBM subcontracted the OS development to a then obscure company called Microsoft: IBM felt there was a very limited market for the desktop computer, and there would be no profit in the OS. Total sales for these desktop things were estimated at 65,000 units before the market would collapse.
          • Xerox

            Supplied ALMOST nothing ...
            Bee Ryan
      • He's not overestimating them... just giving justice...

        I know most people think that there's a "reality distortion field" surrounding Apple, but let's be honest. In the past 6 years they have redefined categories everybody thought were only fringe at best.

        Microsoft never really dedicated much people to (Windows) Mobile until the iPhone. Same happened with the iPad.

        Much has to do with, incredible, patience than real innovation.

        Just look at Samsungs Smart TV and XBox Kinect. They are really innovative ideas, but both have been mostly ignored by the general public.

        Ever since the failure of NeXT, Jobs learned that success is more based on "perfect timing" than "perfect hardware", the former being more of the former than the latter and the original iPad being more of the latter than former.
      • Innovation, functionality and problem solving ...

        The Mac Cube - or G4 Cube was pretty damn cool. I wish Apple would bring more of it back. Apple still has a "cube" actually though it is less money (relativite) and is called the Mac Mini. Also the new Mac Pro - well I call it the Mac Mini Pro - but it is a beast of a system - just not as expandable as the old Cube - which had a video card slot for potential upgrades...

        64bit is innovative, when it applies to real world performance - of just about everything that needs it, in mobile - such as security (cryptography) - photography - video - and more - which the iPhone and its SoC uses brilliantly. Now I know the Android camp likes to claim a quad core, blah, blah, blah is "innovative" or even "superior", but everything shows that - at this point anyway - quad core for mobile - does not help with much at all, except (possibly) to drain the battery faster.

        I'm sure most of you guys already knew this... but maybe others did not.
        Bee Ryan