The Use Case for Smartwatches

I recently gave a presentation on wearables at a private event in NYC, and it was a good time to reflect on where we’re at.
Android Wear app on iOS and Apple Watch app on iOS
Android Wear app on iOS and Apple Watch app on iOS
Android Wear
On the Google side of things, the Android Wear smartwatches have been out for a bit over a year, and we’ve seen most of the larger Google Android phone makers launch watches on this platform. Most of the watches are functionally very similar, and differentiate based on form-factor, or how they look and feel. I recently purchased and spent time using and testing the new Huawei Watch, one of the newer Android Wear devices.
This month, Android Wear finally added support for iOS, so you can now use an Android Wear watch with your iPhone. Android Wear devices are currently better paired with Android phones, but that will change over time. The Android Wear system is build around a few things:
  • Notifications: This helps move actions from your phone (in your pocket or purse) to your wrist.
  • Google Services: As Google continues to leverage the cloud to analyze and perform actions based on your data (Google Now), these services are getting better all the time. Using Google Maps on your phone is great, and the wrist is a natural extension of this. Using Google Translate works really well technically, and the Android Wear version of this does a great job with voice translation and input.
  • Fitness: Heart rate and fitness monitoring seems to be an expectation for wearables, and many of the Android Wear devices have this feature.

In the usual Android way, the watch is pretty much wide open for developers, so it’s relatively easy to create apps that take advantage of everything the watch can do. On the other hand, all of the devices work and operate the same, given that they all follow a pretty strict standard.

Apple Watch

On the Apple side of things, the Apple Watch has been out for about six months. From a form factor perspective, all of the Apple Watch models do exactly the same thing. You get one device, and while the materials it’s made of may vary, the form factor of them all is the same. I purchased an Apple Watch when it was first released, and have been using it since.

A big update to the operating system, Watch OS 2, was just released. The biggest limitation of Watch OS 1 was that Apple put strict limits on what developers could do, and most of the heavy lifting of Watch Apps was done on the phone. The result was that third party apps, while plentiful, were very slow. This is fixed with Watch OS 2, so we should quickly see an emergence of apps are much faster. We’ve used the Apple Watch to open doors around our office, and it is really convenient, but speed has been an issue. You can read more about it on Makezine or Lifehacker.

Apple has centered the Apple Watch around a few things:

  • Notifications: Again, this helps move quick and simple interactions to your wrist.
  • Apps: This is big for Apple – they’ve helped transform how we use smartphones via the App model, and they’re focused on this for the Watch as well.
  • Fitness: Apple has included heart rate monitoring on all Apple Watches, with additional sensors track your movement and steps.
  • Payments: Apple has put a lot of work into Apple Pay, and while it’s good on the iPhone, it’s amazing on the Apple Watch. It’s incredibly easy to use and very secure.
  • Complications: These are small bits of information that are present on your watch face. You can customize the watch face, and choose which complications are important to you (upcoming calendar events, temperature, etc).

It’s no secret that Apple has had incredible success with Apps on iOS (iPhones + iPads). They recently announced the new Apple TV, to which Tim Cook said this: “We believe the future of TV is apps”. They’ve taken this approach forward with the Apple Watch as well, and much of the focus has been on apps. Pushing the digital crown, the primary button interface, brings up the screen of Apps.

Primary Use Today

After using and living with both of these devices, a few things stand out:

Notifications: it’s clear that the basic delivery of notifications to your wrist is a compelling thing. Glancing quickly to see if a message or call is important, or not, does help me stay out of my phone while surfacing important things that need to be dealt with. This alone will be enough to prove value for some people.

Payments: On this front, Apple has the edge with Apple Pay. Because they design the hardware and software together, they’re able to create a system without compromise. It is simple and slick: you have to try it to understand how well this works.

Complications: These small bits of information are meant to be part of the watch face you chose. They are simple and quick to view, and show up on your watch face. The core Apple complications display things like temperature, calendar meeting information, and sunrise and sunset. They now allow third party developers to create complications, so we’ll see little bits of information that are important to us front and center on the watch face. With Watch OS 2, you can spin the crown to advance time and see what the future state of them will be. These give you a quick glance at things that are important to you.

Fitness: The heart rate and fitness monitoring built into both of these devices are “good enough”. They don’t match the performance of a dedicated fitness device, but are good enough for general use. When I’ve used these devices to track my fitness for long periods of time, the battery life is an issue – it’s clear they aren’t meant to be used all day, but as part of a day.

Apps: Navigation to apps on your watch is clunky: you are either scrolling through a list (Android), or looking at a grid of icons (Apple). Either way, it’s not a great experience, and the payoff of most of these apps is just not there. Few of these are compelling at this point, and it’s pretty clear that we won’t be opening apps on our phones, rather, we’ll be reacting to things that they automatically bring forward to us.

The Future:

For the long term, Smart Watches will be an accessory to our phones, and they won’t be replacing our phones any time soon, if ever. Given this, the market for them will be much smaller than the smartphone market. If you’re going to buy only one device, you’ll buy a smartphone. They will likely grab a small part of the smartphone market, for people that are willing to pay a premium for convenience or to cover off on a specific use case that’s important to them. The Apple Watch will maintain it’s price over time, and I suspect we’ll see a range of Android Wear devices that span the range from $99 and up.

How do these devices fit into our digital lives? Smart Watches do provide a few key unique things over mobile phones:

  • Identity & Security: Apple Pay is a great example of this. Once the watch is on you, and you unlock it, it can be used as a strong source of identification. The Apple Pay implementation is treated as a “card present” transaction, even though the card is not present. This shows how secure this can be. Once these become more common, the idea of using a smartwatch as a source of trust and identity will allow us to use them to seamlessly open our doors, start our cars, and interact with the physical world around us.
  • Invisible Apps: this is a relatively new term, and it describes apps and software that run in the background, and surface important information, alerts, or calls to action when it’s contextually useful. Think of these as smarter notifications that are tailored to what’s important to you. One example of this is the change we’ve seen in weather apps: we used to check the weather apps to see what the weather was going to be; now our weather apps automatically alert us when bad weather is approaching. As we shift to smarter, more proactive apps, smart watches have the potential to make these interactions better.
  • Reducing Friction: This sounds simple, and it is. If an app can be distilled down to a simple, single interaction, or made better on the watch than on the phone, people will naturally gravitate to this. Small savings add up over time, and we get used to that. Remote keyless entry for autos is a good example of this – at first it seems like a small convenience, then you get used to it, and can’t imagine living without it. Also, over time our keyless fobs grew from just unlcoking doors to encompass security systems, remote start, and more.

In the end, smart watches won’t be replacing our smartphones. They can though, help reduce friction and make many of the things we do even easier and faster. Pulling your phone out of your pocket isn’t much easier than pulling out a credit card. Swiping your wrist across a payment terminal (or opening a door, or starting a car), is much easier, and these little things add up over time. I’m particularly excited about this, and think that the potential to security interact with our physical world is one of the most exciting aspects of the future of wearables.


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