What We’re Learning from Smartwatch Adoption

on April 25, 2016

A year ago today, Apple released its long-anticipated Apple Watch. Over the ensuing year, we’ve learned a lot about an entirely new tech category.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) estimates 17 million smartwatches were sold in 2015, up from 4 million in 2014. I can name more than a few categories that would love to experience 350 percent growth over a 12 month period. Few ever do.

Forthcoming CTA research suggests roughly eight percent of households own a smartwatch today – almost double the number last year. Of those planning to buy a smartwatch in 2016, 72 percent will be first-time buyers.

Smartwatches remains a nascent category. The majority of those who will own a smartwatch do not yet currently own one. The use case scenarios for this device and similar ones have yet to be defined. Smartwatches are trying to do something few tech categories aspire to. Through smartwatches, we are embedding the internet into new pockets of our everyday lives. This bigger and broader transformation will redefine the boundaries of connectivity.

One of the greatest struggles for a new experiential category are the demands for instant, wide-spread adoption. Take a step back. The most successful categories, in the long term, are ones that redefine how we do things. They redefine leisure and productivity, and ultimately redefine who we are.

In 1984, the VCR avoided being outlawed by the Supreme Court by a single vote. At the time, critics were overly concerned about the record button, but it was the play button that redefined us. By the 1990s, we were spending more on video rentals than at the box office. The device gave way to an entirely new sector of the economy and an entirely new way of life. Today, streaming services are once again redefining leisure.

Categories are quickly panned when mature use case scenarios aren’t easily and instantly identified. The smartphone was introduced in 2003 and the first iPhone came to market in 2007. The smartphone has changed how we do numerous activities – from navigating traffic to shopping to listening to music. All of these activities are far afield from the original premise of a portable telephony contraption.

No one saw smartphones for the mini-computers we shove in our pockets today and no one foresaw how apps would change the way we approached the internet on these devices. In the early days of the smartphone, the internet was a browser technology, akin to the way we experience it on the computer. But the introduction of apps would redefine how we leveraged the internet to disseminate information, data and services and, as a result, myriad completely new services were born.

The smartwatch isn’t simply the next new shiny gadget – it is something radically more. At least, the potential it represents is something more. Nothing in the past year suggests that potential has diminished.

Many of us are thinking too narrowly about smartwatches. We focus on aesthetics and design. We focus on all of the electronics that power these small wonders of innovation strapped to our wrists. But we don’t stop to consider what we are really asking of the device. Or perhaps more importantly, we aren’t talking about what the smartwatch is asking of us.

What we should fundamentally be asking about the smartwatch is this: if the internet makes sense on the wrist, what does that mean for society?

At its most fundamental level, the smartwatch represents a sea change in how we connect. We are driving computing sensors and the internet into new areas of our lives. Never before have all of these building blocks been available to us as they are today. It wasn’t feasible to deliver the internet to the wrist until now.

Academic research suggests it takes five to seven years to unleash the productivity-enhancing characteristics of new innovation. Let us look beyond the obvious. We aren’t one or two years into a brand new category; we are one or two years into a brand new way of thinking about the internet. What we learn from this early experimentation will help color and characterize where the internet goes from here.

A few years from now, the smartwatch as we know it today may take an entirely new form. But what we learn will define where the internet goes next and how we get it there.