Despite the best efforts from Apple (with the Apple Watch), Google (with Android Wear), Samsung (with the Galaxy Gear), Pebble (with the, uh, Pebble), and dozens of other companies, the dream of the smartwatch hasn’t really taken off. Turns out that turning a smartphone into a wrist device isn’t really that appealing. Even if you can somehow get the right balance of battery life, device size, and developer support, people just aren’t really interested in getting anything more than notifications and fitness tracking from the devices they wear on their wrists.
We’re already seeing a backlash in the industry against the traditional touchscreen smartwatch back toward what I like to call “hybrid smartwatches.” These are devices that resemble normal (and far more fashionable) analog watches that feature fitness-tracking mechanisms and compatible apps for your smartphone. Products like the Frédérique Constant Horological Smartwatches, the Mistfit Phase, or the Skagen Hagen Connected serve as good examples of the category.
While these are more user-friendly than the bulky, short-lived touchscreen models that often failed at the basic task of being a watch — always showing the time — I think that for the smartwatch to survive, it needs to change even further. It needs to not be a watch at all.
Instead of trying to shove tech components into the watchface, companies should shift their focus to a different area: the watch strap. We’ve already seen a few attempts at this. The Montblanc e-Strap tried to have the best of both worlds with a full screen on the bottom of a strap for its regular mechanical watches. And more recently, the crowdfunded Smart Buckle cleverly fit an entire fitness tracker into a standard watch band buckle.
The advantage of integrating the tech into the buckle or band is simple: it lets watchmakers focus on the part of watchmaking that they’re best at — making great timepieces. Given that watches have long used an almost universal lug system, it’d be uncomplicated to create bands that would work with almost any watch, whether it’s a $15 Timex or a $15,000 Rolex, while still offering the same basic smart features that people want from their watches.
Right now, any smart straps out there use a proprietary system, but there’s a big opportunity for someone out there to win over the market. Imagine Google pivoting Android Wear to a simple fitness-tracking and notification strap system, one that could tie in with any Android or iOS device and work with any wristwatch, with the kind of partnerships that Google has already shown it can forge with high-end watchmakers behind it.
Given that the Fédération de l'industrie horlogère suisse (Federation of the Swiss watch industry) estimates that roughly 1.2 billion timepieces were sold last year (of which 25.4 million of which were Swiss watches) the potential market is far greater than the market for smartwatches, which sold roughly 21.1 million units in 2016. It’s a far more interesting kind of smartwatch future than one where Tag Heuer tries to convince the world that a $1,600 Android Wear watch is just as good as a similar automatic timepiece.
Watches, as a product, aren’t logical purchases. Cellphones serve as the timekeeping device of choice for far more people than wristwatches, and they do so far more accurately than even the most precise mechanical watch. As my colleague Micah Singleton pointed out, the luxury watch space has not only survived the onrush of smartwatches in the industry, it’s growing again.
Watch fans aren’t buying timepieces for function, they’re buying them for form. And no Kickstarter-funded analog watch with a fitness app is going to supersede a finely crafted mechanical timepiece in the eyes of the people actually buying watches. A smart strap system would allow for the best of both worlds, letting watch fans keep their watches while still offering modern advantages.
Products like the Smart Buckle are a good step forward. And as someone who is constantly torn between wearing a nice watch and wearing a smartwatch, I hope that future efforts will continue that trend.