Last week I talked about health and fitness wearables and my failure to see how they appeal to a broader market. This week I want to talk about the potentially lucrative category of smart watches. If we count Microsoft’s Smart Personal Object (or SPOT watches) as a smart watch then I have been using these kinds of devices for many years. However, even the current (or soon to be shipping) crop leaves me puzzled. I still question how big of a market the smart watch category could be but honestly, I’m on the fence.
To dive deeper, I think it would be helpful to look at a few current and future value propositions related to smart watches. We have to start with the question, “What is the value of a smart, easily viewed, small screen on my person?” Answer this and we are getting somewhere. The key is the smart watch screen is always in view. Unlike other screens – my smartphone, tablet, PC, TV, etc. – this smart object on my wrist is easily viewable throughout the day as long as I’m wearing it. To answer my question, we have to look at some things I may personally care to be notified of regardless of whether I am looking at any other screen. The key to this is context. [pullquote]Smart watches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be found useful on the wrist.[/pullquote]
When am I not looking at my smartphone, PC, tablet, or TV? When I am driving, at a lunch or dinner meeting, walking around the mall, city, park, etc. There are many occasions throughout our day when we are not staring at our smartphones, PCs, tablets, or TVs. These are the times a smart watch must deliver value beyond keeping time. Currently the proposed value is in notifications. The smart watch will notify me of an email, text or Facebook message, twitter mention, incoming call, and more. Any app that pushes a notification to my phone can and does push a notification to my wrist. More often than not I find this more distracting than helpful. I get a lot of email, text messages, twitter mentions, and calls throughout the day. My wrist buzzes quite a bit, mostly with notifications that aren’t useful to me. The reason? The watch, or even my phone for that matter, does not know my context. I may not want to see all the emails but if I am waiting for an important response from a client that would be useful. I don’t want to be notified of all phone calls but only ones that are urgent – say, from my wife. This goes beyond a filter. It is all about context. The device needs to know more about me and my situation to be useful. Smart watches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be found useful on the wrist.
For example, when I am in a meeting I don’t want to look rude as I check my watch 15 times over the course of an hour every time it buzzes. But what if my phone/watch knew where my next meeting was and would alert me of any traffic issues I should be aware of that may change the time I need to leave in order to not be late for my next appointment? This is what makes some of the proposed use cases of Android Gear somewhat interesting. Google Now does a decent job of focusing on contextual data that is useful at a glance. This could be location data, traffic data, and a host of other things that can equip us to take action and make decisions. Ultimately, this type of contextual data, useful in helping us make choices, is where the value of a wrist worn smart screen may lie.
My biggest misgiving is we will experience notification overload. Even though I test some smart watches that have useful filters for which apps notify the watch and which don’t, I still suffer from notification overload. My concern is, if we open the wrist screen to notification from solicitors – trying to get our attention with deals, discounts, and coupons – we again suffer from notification overload. There will have to be an intelligent way for much smarter notifications to reveal themselves if the smart watch category is to go mainstream.
A part of me feels a smart watch is still a solution in search of a problem. Part of me also feels there is value to be found on a screen that is more easily viewed than a screen in a pocket or a purse. Many seem to believe this may be the next hot category. I still have my doubts. Mass market appeal and convenience is what the smart watch needs to find. Until then it will be a niche market.