What We’re Learning from Smartwatch Adoption

Shawn DuBravac / April 25th, 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.

Shawn DuBravac

Shawn DuBravac is chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association and the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Communicate.”
  • Glaurung-Quena

    That was a nice bit of marketing hype. I knew that this article needed to be taken with major salt when I
    came to the part extolling the huge percentage of sales growth in the
    category. Buzz! sorry, but percentage growth is meaningless for small
    numbers, and the numbers of s-watches are still pretty small compared to
    other tech categories. What makes it especially invalid is that you’re
    comparing sales post Apple entering the market to the extremely small numbers in the category before Apple
    entered the market.

    “if the internet makes sense on the wrist, what does that mean for society?”

    Making the mistake of assuming that we now have the internet on the wrist and can begin to make judgements about it. All we have so far is an appendix to the smartphone on the wrist. The internet isn’t there yet.

    Your analogy about the evolution of smartphones is apt here: right now, we have the analogue of either a blackberry or a palm PDA on the wrist. It is impossible to say at this point which of those it is — the thing that eventually takes over the world (blackberry, now near extinct but its descendants, Iphone and android, have taken over the entire phone market) or the thing that fades into obscurity and is forgotten (the PDA).

    One thing we do know at this point, a thing that the tech punditry tends to overlook due to their being nerds, is that most people are _very_ fussy about what they wear on their bodies. The high hurdle to overcome is not “why do I need this when i already have a phone” but the even more insurmountable “why should I *wear* this when I already have a phone and I don’t want to wear anything on my wrist/there’s so many better things I can wear on my wrist.”

    Prior to the iwatch, wearables could be categorized as either nerd accessories (pebble, etc), or as fitness accessories. The fitness wearables appealed in the selling a lot more broadly than in the actual practice (like gym memberships, they tended to stop being used after the novelty wore off). Right now, Iwatch tries to sell itself as both a nerd accessory and as a fitness accessory, but in a package that is pretty enough to justify wearing it instead of a regular watch or a bracelet. That plus the appeal of it being a gadget from Apple was enough to sell really well for a nerd accessory. We don’t know yet if it will ever break out of the nerd/fitness accessory niche and sell more broadly.

  • observer

    “The Internet on the wrist”? That seems like way too much to ask of a 1- inch screen.

    I guess it’s Shawn DuBravac’s job, as chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association to beat the drum for new ideas in consumer gear, and that’s why he’s suggesting that a house cat should carry 100 lbs. on its back.

    • obarthelemy

      Internet != Web. With the current (mostly wifi + phone-bound) smartwatches, we do get a taste of quasi-permanent connectivity, which is bound to become truly permanent in 1 or 2 generations w/ GSM chips in the watches.

      The point is of course not to browse the Web, but get notifications/messages and location services, and triple up as a phone peripheral (Siri, Pay, remote…) and fitness/health tracker. I’m surprised at how, 2-3 years on, apps have barely deviated from that triptych.

  • aardman

    When the smartwatch finally becomes the universal identity authenticator that reduces the risk of identity theft down to zero, then it will catch on. What we’re wairing for is a foolproof biometric id sensor on the watch’s back. Fingerprint scanners are still too unwieldy for a universal authenticator.

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