Smartwatch is not dead yet

“Why on earth did you get one of those?” asked my friend, laughing his head off at me.

We were sitting in Starbucks in Mall of the Emirates in October, and I was in the process of showing off the newly released Apple Watch that the company had very kindly loaned me for review purposes. I’ve paraphrased his remarks to make them a little more family friendly.

I felt a little affronted at my friend’s response, having become one of the first in the UAE to get my hands on one of the most anticipated gadgets of the year. But still, I found his question a difficult one to answer. Despite all the hype, I still wasn’t sure what the point of the shiny new device on my wrist was.

I still hadn’t found an answer four weeks later, when I took my Apple Watch off for the last time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautifully designed device that’s useful for basic fitness tracking and keeping on top of notifications. But neither the Apple Watch nor competing offerings from the likes of Sony, Samsung or Motorola have made me want to upgrade from my decidedly non-smart analogue wristwatch.

The question of whether smartwatches are a bold new electronics segment or a temporary fad remains unanswered nearly a year later, as the next generation of devices awaits launch.

Apple is widely expected to unveil its second smartwatch, the somewhat unimaginatively titled Apple Watch 2, at its autumn launch event in California on September 7. The new device is rumoured to have a better screen, better battery life and, crucially, a GPS chip, meaning you won’t have to lug your iPhone around with you to track your outdoor runs as before.

Samsung, meanwhile, will launch its latest flagship smartwatch, the Gear S3, at this week’s IFA mammoth consumer electronics exhibition in Berlin, after sending out some not particularly cryptic invitations earlier this month. (“Stay tuned for a timely innovation,” Samsung Mobile’s Twitter account advised.)

Details about the Gear S3 are similarly scarce, with rumours of a slightly larger screen, a few new sensors and possible multiple versions, including a special outdoor sports model.

But are such new features enough for smartwatch owners to upgrade their wireless wristwear, or to tempt others into ditching their Timexes for something smarter?

“The unique selling point [for smartwatches] that many brands or app developers had to come up with hasn’t quite been there,” said Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer of Jacky’s Electronics. “Many still sell it as a smartwatch on your wrist, which is why fitness trackers are [still] doing better.”

Much of the initial hype over smartwatches, provoked by the Apple Watch’s launch last year, appears to have dissipated, at least for the moment. The industry analyst IDC reported a 32 per cent drop in global smartwatch shipments for the second quarter of the year, as customers hold on for the launch of the Apple Watch 2 and Samsung Gear S3 before splashing out.

While Apple bore the brunt of the slowdown, slowing Apple Watch sales appears to have sucked out much of the momentum in the market as a whole.

“A decline for Apple leads to a decline in the entire market,” said Jitesh Ubrani, the senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “Every vendor faces similar challenges related to fashion and functionality, and though we expect improvements next year, growth in the remainder of 2016 will likely be muted.”

That’s not to say that the smartwatch is dead yet. IDC predicts that the market will return to growth next year, as platforms continue to develop and the number of apps increase.

Mr Panjabi said that Samsung’s flagship, the Gear S2, outperformed the company’s previous smartphones, noting that fitness tracking smartwatch apps such as S-Health have significantly improved.

While Apple still doesn’t disclose sales figures for the Apple Watch, Tim Cook, the chief executive, said that customer satisfaction was “off the charts” in Apple’s last earnings release.

That customer satisfaction can be found in some unexpected places. The friend who laughed at my Apple Watch? Turns out he bought one for his wife just a week later. She’s still wearing it nearly a year later.

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John Everington

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