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Mossberg: Smartwatches need to get smarter

These wearable wonders aren't living up to the hype

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Re/code.

Like most of you reading this, I conduct much of my professional and personal life via digital devices. But which of them could I do without?

Well, for me, having no smartphone would be the worst. I'd feel cut off from other people. Losing my laptop would be a close second, since it's my main work tool and my best display for browsing and video viewing. I'm a big tablet guy, so I'd hate to lose my iPad, which I now use for many things, including work tasks.

But my $700, stainless steel Apple Watch? If that somehow went away, I expect I'd stop missing it after a few days. Sure, it does just enough for me that I don't feel terrible about buying it, or wish to get rid of it. But since I started wearing one after it launched last April, it just hasn't become an integral part of my life. Unlike my phone, if I left it at home one day, I wouldn't drive back to get it.

And I'm not alone. I know lots of tech fans who either haven't bought a smartwatch, or who just haven't formed an attachment to the one they have. One friend, a veteran and savvy tech journalist, removed her Apple Watch upon entering the hospital for a routine procedure, fearing it might be lost or stolen. And when she got out, she simply never put it back on.

The smartwatch isn't smart enough to be essential

So what's the problem? The smartwatch isn't smart enough to be essential, to feel like a natural part of daily life. So far, it mostly duplicates things you do on your smartphone -- sometimes more conveniently, more often not. In most cases, it's just sort of a companion to your phone, losing most if its power when left alone.

So what's the solution? The watches — not just Apple's, but all of them — need to find lots more independent functions, ones that are consistent with always being on you and knowing who you are, without the nearby presence of a smartphone.

Two-and-a-half-tasks

In my own case, I use my Apple Watch mainly for two and a half things besides telling the time and date. The first is general fitness tracking. This isn't the same as quantifying a million things about serious workouts for serious fitness fanatics, though my watch can do some of that. It's more aimed at the vast majority of people, like me, who need to be less sedentary, and to see and meet goals for daily physical activity, standing up more, and doing light exercise.

The second is notifications. It's easier to glance at a text, or reminder, or an approaching calendar item on your wrist than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse. And, with Apple's watch and some competitors, it's also easy, when necessary, to tap on an intelligent canned response. Apple's Siri actually works remarkably well for me as a way of occasionally dictating a longer response via the watch, even in moderately noisy settings.

The half-task? It's using Apple Pay and code-based authentication and payment features like the Starbucks app and electronic plane and train boarding passes. The reason I call this a "half-task" is that half the time, the readers used by merchants for this are configured for phones and the wrist contortions required to use the watch instead aren't worth attempting.

(Speaking of wrist contortions, I wish Apple would sharpen the algorithms that turn on its screen when you raise your wrist to check the time. At least once a week, I find I have to make multiple awkward attempts to get the screen to light up.)

Is that all there is?

The problem with my 2.5 tasks (or 3, if you're better coordinated than I am) is that they're the very same ones I cited as the Apple watch's main attractions when I first reviewed it last spring, saying "... it's a fledgling product whose optimal utility lies mostly ahead of it as new watch software is developed.".

I hardly ever use third-party watch apps

Since then, Apple has released a new version of the watch operating system meant to speed up and enrich third-party apps, and the number of those apps has ballooned from from about 4,000 to over 13,000. But when I spoke on background to highly knowledgeable Apple sources for this column, fitness tracking, notifications, and payments were still cited as the top tasks — so far — of most users. Apple CEO Tim Cook refers to them publicly when explaining the value of the Apple Watch. Not only that, but similarly clued-in sources at Samsung, also speaking on background, cited the same uses as the most popular for its smartwatches, including the recently released Gear S2.

The experts at both companies cited the value of the smartwatch as a handy way to consume key information or perform key tasks in even less time than it takes on a smartphone. That's certainly true about glancing at texts, but, in my case, I hardly ever use third-party watch apps. I find most of them slower and clumsier than just pulling out my phone to use the more full-featured, faster version of the app.

Early days

To be fair, the smartwatch category (which I separate from the more focused fitness band category, despite some functional overlap) took off, relatively speaking, last year after Apple entered the game. While the secretive giant doesn't release Apple Watch sales figures, a report issued last week by the British research firm Juniper claims Apple accounted for over half of the 17 million or so smartwatches it says were sold last year, even though it was only in the market for three-quarters of the year.

Apple's smash hit products have always required some time to become huge

By contrast, it said that competing watches using Android Wear — Google's wearable software platform — held less than a 10 percent share. (Samsung, which primarily uses Android in its phones, uses its own operating system, Tizen, in its latest watches.) If Apple did indeed sell about 8 or 9 million smartwatches last year, that would be far fewer than some frothy analysts predicted, and of little financial consequence to the company.

But people do forget that Apple's smash hit products have always required some time to become huge. For instance, the iPod was introduced in 2001, but didn't really take off until its third generation in 2003-2004. And new smartwatches are coming. Apple will sooner or later have a second generation, maybe this year. And I don't expect the Android Wear companies or Samsung to quit. Like Apple, they are all struggling to make their case to the mass market.

So maybe I'm too impatient. But, to quote Juniper, there's a "continued lack of a strong use case for smartwatches."

What's next?

I don't think the smartwatch needs one "killer app", but I do believe it needs a capability more compelling than what's out there so far. It needs to do something, all on its own, that's useful, quick, secure and cool.

I have no crystal ball on this question, but I believe that one way to make the smartwatch indispensable is to make it a sort of digital token that represents you to the environment around you.

For instance, while the phone often is faster and easier for, say, using maps, the watch is much better positioned for communicating with smart items in your home, or even your car. It's likely to be on your person more than your phone is, it knows who you are, and can be secured to be used by only you. So, with your permission, it could open your door, tell your thermostat you're home, maybe even start your car remotely.

In stores, you could opt in to letting the watch not just pay for items, but order frequent purchases automatically, as you approach. These tasks can be set up and customized on a bigger screen once, and then just happen, effortlessly and often, with the watch. Such things are already possible with smartphones, and there are even some watch apps that can do some of them.

If the smartwatch can't eventually get smarter and more useful, it risks becoming a footnote

But I believe that this kind of functionality needs to be a core function of the watch, tied into the budding iOS and Android platforms for controlling homes and cars. Samsung, which now owns an Internet of Things company called SmartThings, is already working on this, using its Tizen software platform.

Maybe this idea isn't the one that will give the smartwatch the bond you now feel for your other gadgets. There certainly are smarter people than me looking at the problem. But something has to change. If the smartwatch can't eventually do something smarter and more useful than it does now, it risks becoming a footnote.