I was sitting in an airport the other day talking to a friend about why I think smartwatches are doomed to fail, when I noticed he was wearing one.
He glanced at it, and with a sheepish grin, admitted that it was out of battery. The conversation was pretty much over.
There are expectations from some quarters that Apple will energize the languishing category when it finally releases its own Apple Watch in early 2015.
Apple makes fantastic hardware and has had hit after hit for more than a decade. Everything the company touches turns to gold, so its watch will surely be different. It’ll be a huge hit, according to some predictions.
But the Apple Watch has perhaps more obstacles to overcome than any other product in the history of the company.
I’ve written about these before, but many of them come down to one simple engineering problem: that pesky battery life.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has said that users will need to charge their smartwatch daily, but without any real-world tests at this point, even that may be a charitable estimate. Many Apple Watches could ultimately end up dead and lifeless on users’ wrists, much like my friend’s.
The problem is the limited space that all smartwatches have to deal with. Battery life is so far unfortunately linked to battery size—the more you have of one, the more you have of the other.
That’s an impossible dilemma for smartwatches, because in order to be useful they must have larger batteries. But as jewelry or a fashion accessory, they can’t be too big.
Manufacturers have to take all kinds of shortcuts, which inevitably make their devices inferior to regular “dumb” watches.
Take the Moto 360, for example, which is the best smartwatch I’ve used so far. But, in order to simply read the time, you have to illuminate its screen by holding your wrist closer to your face or by tapping it. With an ordinary watch, you simply look down at your wrist where the time is always displayed. Zero effort needed.
Smartwatch battery woes actually extend beyond the watch itself. Many of the devices rely on Bluetooth connections with phones for many of their notification functions to work. That connection saps power on the phone too, which means the typical smartwatch is an insatiable power vampire that depletes two devices at once.
With battery life the major complaint of many smartphone users, and especially iPhone users, that’s another obstacle to smartwatch acceptance.
Some manufacturers are expected to introduce devices that house their own cellular SIM cards to get around this required tethering, but that’s going to be a non-starter for many people. A second costly wireless subscription or a higher data bill are going to be tough pills to swallow.
Some smartwatches manage to obviate the battery life problem, but they tend to do so by taking other shortcuts. The Pebble Steel, for example, has a monochrome screen that isn’t a big power sucker.
That’s good if you don’t mind a low-fi screen that looks like something out of the 1980s.
Make no mistake—there will be lineups at Apple stores when the company releases its smartwatch, with the faithful dutifully snapping up the latest gizmo.
But without the famous “reality distortion field” of departed co-founder Steve Jobs leading the way, it’s hard to see how Apple or any other manufacturer will be able to overcome some of these key realities.
The Apple Watch, along with the rest of its kin, is destined to end up as a niche product. That could be big for a small company such as Pebble, but for one that only hits mammoth home runs, niche is akin to flop.