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Now seems like a good time to ask what a smartwatch is

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Apps vs. basic connectivity

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What is a smartwatch?

I’m not asking this question in the literal sense; if I was, I’d be ill-equipped to have written as many smartwatch articles and reviews as I have over the past five years. A lot of us know what a smartwatch is conceptually; at the very least, there’s a vague sense among the general public that a smartwatch is somehow smarter, the way a smartphone is smart, and that techies like to wear them.

But with so many connected watches selling now, what actually makes a smartwatch a smartwatch? Is it a specific operating system? The ability to run third-party apps? Or it is simply a watch that can show you notifications from your smartphone? If that’s the case: does it have to look like a watch? Or is a Fitbit a smartwatch ?

Fitbit’s Blaze might best exemplify a product that’s stuck between two product categories, which only underscores that the category itself is still undefined. Fitbit was careful to market the Blaze as a “smart fitness watch” when it first announced it in January 2016. It looks like a smartwatch, it shows notifications like a smartwatch, it has the touchscreen of a smartwatch, but it wasn’t a “smartwatch.” Why not? Fitbit might not have presented it that way because the watch doesn’t run third-party apps the way an Apple Watch or an Android Wear watch does. Or, maybe Fitbit just didn’t want to go head-to-head with Apple — not that Fitbit’s intentions mattered at all once Wall Street (correctly) assessed that Fitbit was going head-to-head with Apple.

Fitbit Blaze
Fitbit Blaze: don’t call it a “smartwatch.”

But if third-party apps are the differentiator — that difference between, say, a connected Garmin watch with a transflective display that only runs its own exercise apps, and an Android Wear watch that runs a bunch of different apps on its bright touchscreen display — then what does that say about Apple Watch, the Fortune 500-sized business that has been losing support from key app makers like Google, Amazon, and eBay? If those third-party apps don’t matter, and the things that matter are the core functions of the watch like time-telling, messaging, fitness-tracking, and payment-making, then wouldn’t that make so many other connected watches “smartwatches,” too? Does that mean a connected Fossil watch, or a Withings watch, is a “smartwatch”?

I realize I’m posing more questions than I’m answering here, but it’s because the category really is messy at the moment, as small as it may be relative to the PC or smartphone market. I’ve been informally surveying industry insiders about what they think makes a “smartwatch,” and have been surprised by some answers. Recently Ray Maker, of the DC Rainmaker blog, joined the Too Embarrassed to Ask podcast and we geeked out over wearables for over an hour. When I asked him what he considers to be a smartwatch, Maker first acknowledged that the “definition keeps on changing for everyone,” but that he ultimately considers a smartwatch “anything I get notifications on.”

Cardiogram co-founder Brandon Ballinger says he thinks a smartwatch is something with an app platform. He thinks that people are still “figuring out which apps suit the format.” He points out that Word or Excel were popular PC apps, but don’t make sense on an iPhone, and that it took a few years for Instagram or Uber to emerge.

“We’re still figuring out what the Instagram of Apple Watch will be,” Ballinger concluded. Of course, Cardiogram is an app for Apple Watch, so it makes sense that he would feel that a smartwatch should support third-party apps.

Apple Watch on arm

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies, says that for her the “smartness” of a smartwatch isn’t necessarily reliant on the apps ecosystem. Instead, it’s “the combination of sensors that either help with fitness or context — say in a smart home environment — and notifications … It complements the phone rather than duplicate it.”

Other analysts and research firms don’t necessarily help clear up the matter. If you look at this late-December report from IDC, which is usually a good place to start, the firm broadly establishes the category as “wearables,” makes separate mentions of the “smartwatch” and “fitness band” categories, and then lumps companies like Xiaomi, Garmin, and Apple in the same group. These companies all make things that go on your wrist. But some are arguably “smartwatches,” and some are definitely not. (Things get even more confusing when you consider that Gartner also puts VR glasses / head-mounted displays into the “wearables” category.)

Update: Jitesh Ubrani, a senior analyst at IDC, later clarified that the firm’s stance has been that smartwatches must have the ability to run third-party apps. “We include other wearables because consumers don't look at smartwatches in a vacuum,” Ubrani said.

Personally, I tend to agree with Ballinger that the difference between a smartwatch and a watch that has some smart features, is that a smartwatch at least has the potential to run third-party apps. Think of Pebble (RIP Pebble): no one questioned if that was a smartwatch; it ran on its own OS, and developers made apps for it. As of today, though, I have yet to experience that one app — the Instagram — that makes me think I can’t live without a smartwatch, so I place more value on the core functions of a watch, like the fitness-tracking and battery life of a Garmin or the notifications of an Apple or Android Wear watch.

It’s also very possible that the reason why we can’t all agree on a definition of a smartwatch is because it doesn’t exist yet in its most obvious, platonic form. After all, the BlackBerry was arguably a smartphone, but it hardly seemed like one once a “real” smartphone changed the entire category. To compare the current crop of smartwatches to PDAs, though, is both optimistic and foreboding: it means there’s still an opportunity to blow up the smartwatch market, still room for tremendous growth. But if that’s the case, then who is the BlackBerry in this scenario?

Poll

What makes a smartwatch a smartwatch?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    It runs third-party apps
    (566 votes)
  • 9%
    It runs its own, built-in apps
    (295 votes)
  • 40%
    It wirelessly connects to a smartphone to show you notifications
    (1192 votes)
  • 23%
    It has the chip, radios, and sensors of a smartphone, but in a watch
    (703 votes)
  • 6%
    It does some math. Helloooo, Casio Calculator Watch!
    (205 votes)
2961 votes total Vote Now