Posted by Matt Egan 09 October 2014
Smartwatches, the smartphone anti-churn device
Smartwatches are designed to keep us loyal to our smartphones. But we aren't buying.
The idea of a wrist-wearable window to your smartphone is intrinsically a good one. Those of us who rely upon our phones for communication, information and entertainment spend our lives pulling handset from pocket. The wristwatch is a brilliant form factor, and so wrist-wearable computers are here to say. But that doesn't mean that the current crop of smartwatches, nor the model via which they are manufactured and sold, are set to succeed. And the problem relates to the way smartwatch tech currently works.
Like many - although not most - people I wear both a traditional watch and a wearable activity tracker. The one is both practical and sentimental, stylish even. I can't wear three wearables, so the next smart device would have replace one or both of these. I'm not about to ditch my dumbwatch. And the activity tracker is one of my favourite gadgets.
Currently smartwatches are extensions of smartphones. And with a handful of exceptions including the Pebble watches, they work only with certain handsets. So if you use an iPhone you need to wait for the upcoming Apple Watch. Samsung smartphone users are largely restricted to Samsung smartwatches.
I understand why this is the case. It's an anti-churn measure. Samsung, Apple, Motorola and the rest want you to buy their smartwatches because it means you will stay loyal to their brand next time you change your smartphone.
The upgrade drain
As consumers we have grown used to the concept of smartphones being 'upgraded' every year. Many people even change their phones yearly, or at least every other year. Contrast this with the world of laptops, in which you will keep your PC going until it is noticably slow. It occurs because of two things: the speed with which smaller smartphone batteries declines, and the fact that most people buy their smartphones as part of an annual or by-annual data contract.
Manufacturers love the smartphone upgrade cycle, for obvious reasons. It means that they can continue to sell us hardware even when we don't need to upgrade (smartphone development plateaued a couple of years ago, by every sensible metric). But they also fear the opportunity to jump ship that occurs every year or two. And like broadband- and TV suppliers, they are keen to put in place measures that will keep you loyal. Most people now understand that no combination of shifting from iOS to Android to Windows Phone is all that painful.
A smartwatch speaks to all of these needs. It is an expensive consumer device that will, in the short term, generate a profit for its maker. But more than that it is something you are going to want to keep and use for more than a year or two. And that being the case, and becuase you likely won't buy it at the same time as you sign up for your phone contract, it should be a major factor come phone renewal time. If you have an Apple SmartWatch that you like, you are unlikely to brick it and switch to Android. So your next phone is an iPhone.
So goes the theory. In practice it may prove difficult to get consumers to play ball. When asked if they would consider switching smartphone brand in order to use a specific smartwatch, more than 75 percent of around 11,000 respondents to a PC Advisor poll said no. Only 10 percent said they would change phone to match their smartwatch. Of course this doesn't mean that they wouldn't choose a phone to fit with their current smartwatch, but right now almost no-one owns one of those. And the first challenge for phone- and watch makers will be to convince the mass consumer that a smartwatch is a good idea.