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If CES is about the future, then the smartwatch got left behind

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CES is the time of year when the world’s biggest and most ambitious companies in technology, automotive, and entertainment gather to talk about the future. Absent from that conversation this past week was the smartwatch. Whether because companies can’t figure out how to make innovative leaps or consumers just don’t seem that interested, the smartwatch seems to have transitioned from the next big mobile battleground to a big fat question mark.

Of all the companies that once made ambitious plays for the wrist, the only one still actively rethinking the category doesn’t even want to call its device a smartwatch. Fitbit, which this week released its new Blaze wearable, was among the very small handful of companies launching watches at CES. Yet the Blaze is billed as a "fitness watch." It can send you notifications from your phone and track your activity, but it doesn’t run third-party apps.

The Fitbit Blaze is a 'fitness watch,' not a smartwatch

While it may be in part a way to keep Fitbit from sounding like it’s trying to take on the Apple Watch, the Blaze’s branding is also a strategic and purposeful commentary on the category’s potential. "The common knock against general-purpose smartwatches today is that they’re very overwhelming, they do too much, and they cut into your battery life," Fitbit CEO James Park told The Verge this week.

In other words, Fitbit has historically seen itself succeeding not because it has the smartest wearables, but because its products contain only the essentials. It’s working — sales of Fitbit devices have increased every quarter since the company went public last June.

Traditional jewelry and accessory makers are taking a similar approach. Fossil was one of the other companies to release a watch this week at CES. Though it released products with touchscreen displays running Android Wear last fall, the new Intel-powered Fossil Q54 looks like a normal higher-end watch and performs minor activity tracking and basic notification mirroring.

Samsung's gold and platinum Gear S2 Classic

It’s not a new trend. Withings announced a show-stealing wearable at year’s CES called the Activité Pop, which didn’t have a display or run apps, that drew crowds simply because it looked like a cool modern timepiece. Even Samsung, one of the world’s largest smartwatch makers, used CES to show off new finishes for its Gear S2 Classic. The watch has been on the market for months already, but Samsung hopes the 18k rose gold and platinum platings will attract customers whose biggest concern is a smartwatch’s aesthetics.

This line of thinking doesn't bode well for the smartwatch as a computing platform. The smartphone’s utility as a life-changing gadget didn’t pick up steam until the launch of Apple’s App Store in 2008. Now apps are the lifeblood of the multi-billion dollar mobile market. But try and think of an app or service for the smartwatch that would make you put down a few hundred dollars and you’re left scratching your head.

apps are the lifeblood of the mobile market

A good counter example for the smartphone is Uber, perhaps the best indication of radical change a mature technology ecosystem can produce. Uber required a critical mass of smartphone users — all with high-speed data connections, advanced GPS, and access to detailed mapping technology — to create a network of drivers and riders that grew exponentially across the globe.

Even after Uber launched in the San Francisco Bay Area around 2009, it still took four to five years for ride-hailing to become the transformative phenomenon it is today. If you told someone in 2007 that the clunky, slow, and app-less iPhone would one day help herald a real-world logistics network that could eliminate taxi companies worldwide, they’d probably have stood in line at the Apple Store.

It’s difficult to think of a similarly life-changing experience the smartwatch could produce without delving into total fantasy. Perhaps your watch could become a universal remote for the smart home, letting you point it at your TV or kitchen appliances and activate them at will. Or maybe it could feed biometric data medical professionals could actually use to create minute-by-minute snapshots of your health.

Apple watch stock

Companies small and large are no doubt working on those features today, but they don’t appear close to delivering and it’s unclear if anyone is interested enough to be there when they do. Even the Apple Watch, with one of the most software-ready platforms out there, felt nonexistent at CES this year. There weren’t any big app announcements, and the device failed to garner a mention seemingly anywhere on the show floor or during the slew of high-profile press conferences.

If software can’t save the smartwatch, maybe hardware can. Battery life and GPS remain two constant hurdles current smartwatches have run into time and again. If Apple puts a GPS chip in the second-generation Apple Watch rumored to be unveiled in March, it would certainly be a more desirable product. And if the industry at large can figure out how to make a color touchscreen device last longer than a day, the logic goes, the smartwatch may take off.

The Apple Watch felt nonexistent at CES 2016

Both battery life and GPS are part of a bigger theory that the smartwatch will succeed only when it distances itself from the smartphone. Wes Henderek, an analyst for the NPD Group, says the key "is not really an app per se, but the ability for the device [smartwatch] to be stand alone" that will make difference. If the watch could become a viable replacement for the smartphone, that may help solve the chicken-and-egg problem keeping developers from building interesting apps for a product not that many people own.

Of course, adding another device to your life that requires a data plan is not very appealing. "I think you’re going to see a lot of partnerships," Henderek said. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T already sell Samsung’s cellular Gear S2 with a data plan tied to your smartphone. Henderek imagines cell carriers will start giving away stand-alone smartwatches for free and tacking on the data charge as a fee on your phone bill. "You’re also going to start to see upgrade programs that are designed to alleviate some of the fears that your device will be obsolete in a year."

While those strategies could significantly boost the number of smartwatch owners, it’s still unclear where the device fits in the continuum of technology. Are smartwatches the next life-changing device, or an industry distraction until the real revolutionary product hits the market?

Where does the smartwatch fit within the continuum of technology?

Back around 2007, CES was a place you could talk about another product filled with potential and billed as a hot new device type. It was a like a miniature laptop, one that could be easily carried around at a time when ultrabooks tended to be prohibitively expensive and the iPhone didn’t even have 3G data speeds. It was called the netbook.

When Apple released its first iPad in 2010, the netbook met a swift death, having been proven an inferior product beyond a doubt. It wasn’t that nobody saw the tablet coming. It was more that the tablet’s usefulness as a somewhat limited portable computer began to increase dramatically in a short period of time.

Now, five years after the tablet, the smartwatch has to prove it’s not the netbook. So far it’s not succeeding.

See all of our CES 2016 news right here!