Smartwatches might be the new tablets – but I hope not


I know that headline needs explaining. Couple things right up front:

The tablet market has positively exploded in the past few years. From a 2010 high of 17 million units shipped (thanks in large part to the then-new iPad) to a Gartner projection of 184 million units shipped in 2013, the tablet is doing just fine, thanks. As a category, smartwatches would be lucky to find success even close to that. Even the bullish Canalys forecast for a 900% increase in smart watch shipments in 2014 would only translate to 5 million units hitting humanity’s wrists. Even giving the above numbers some breathing room, almost as many tablets are currently shipping per week.

So why the tablet hate in the title above? Because while the omnipresent handheld computers are more successful than ever, they’re also, on the whole, less exciting than ever. Thanks to a combination of the “phone-ification” of the category and the general consumerization of technology, tablets have become almost passé. In less than half the time it took for the smartphone landscape to start stagnating, the tablet world has settled into a dull, predictable rut.

Soon, it'll start buying sports cars and seducing high-schoolers just to feel alive.

Soon, it’ll start buying sports cars and seducing high-schoolers just to feel alive.

Of course, I’m talking from the jaded technology fan’s perspective here, not that of your average buyer (which is why tablets -and TouchWiz-powered phones, for that matter- keep flying off the shelves). Those two worlds are divided by a deep fissure that publications like us come closest to bridging in reviews. The rest of the time, we’re basically geeks writing for geeks. Which is fun, but it also means we get bored easily.

I’ve talked about this recently, both in the latest episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast and in a piece defending the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. Of the various problems with the so-called tech media, one of the most damning is our obsession with the New Hotness – and conversely, our dismissal of the old’n’busted (read: products more than six months old). Dave Winer over at The Scripting News shared some thoughts on the consequences of this kind of thinking in a recent piece, but it was actually a reader comment that stuck with me after I left the page behind. The feedback, from someone called “msd,” said this:

“We are badly in need of [tech] journalism that goes beyond reflexive adoration for the next bright & shiny ‘cool’ thing.”

At Pocketnow, we’ve done our own bit to try to fight that trend via projects like After The Buzz, but there’s only so much we can do. The problem is inherent to our world. The tech media’s fetishization of novelty is the product of a feedback loop: we’re an industry built on rapid dissemination of information about an industry based on rapid evolution of product. It’s a perfect storm of superficial newness-worship that leads to pieces like these, saying that tablets aren’t cool because they’re so yesterday.

"You're still?"

“You haven’t used the iPad Air yet? Weird. I’m bored of it.”

But look, it’s true. When I joined Pocketnow in the spring of 2012, tablet computing was the thing to talk about in tech. Every week it seemed, a new tablet was being leaked or unveiled, or a new tablet software platform was breaking cover. The slate groundswell was so epic that I was originally brought on board to write exclusively about tablets for a Pocketnow spinoff that was to have focused solely on the new market segment. 

That spinoff ended up becoming more of a Joey than a Frasier. That is to say, it didn’t really materialize – and I’m thankful every day that that’s how things went down. Because tablets are still cool, sure, but they’re not the “it” thing anymore, man. Even though they’re selling better than ever. Even though they’re eroding the traditional PC market. In fact, precisely because of that fact. Because that’s what’s making tablets the new normal. And normal’s not cool. Know what’s cool?

No, not a billion dollars.

No, not a billion dollars.

Wearables. Specifically, smartwatches.

Not everyone agrees on this, natch. For proof, just take a journey down to the comments below to see a handful of readers who, upon reading the headline, skipped the body of this piece to share their wisdom on why wearables are irrelevant. But a bunch of very capable outfits have already jumped headlong into the smartwatch game, and a long list of leaks tells us those early pioneers won’t be alone for long.

What’s so seductive, so appealing about these little smartphone accessories you strap to your wrist? Well, first of all, nostalgia. Samsung’s appeal to our love of the past with its Galaxy Gear ads is very smart, and it’s got a good track record overall. In the US, the first clamshell mobile phones were a smashing success partly because they recalled Star Trek‘s flip-top communicators. The first tablets saw countless comparisons to science-fiction analogs. WiFi, NFC, Bluetooth: same deal.

Uhura knew about Jawbone before Jawbone knew about Jawbone.

Uhura knew about Jawbone before Jawbone knew about Jawbone.

So smartwatches are the next evolution of that natural progression: technology catching up to a point we only fantasized about before. But they, along with Google Glass and other wearables slowly creeping into the public consciousness, are also appealing just because they’re new. They’re so new that we haven’t even come to a consensus yet on whether the term “smartwatch” is one word or two. They represent an entirely new frontier: for businesses it’s a profit opportunity, for geeks like us it’s a chance to experience mobile tech in a brand new way. Smartwatches are the tablets of 2013.

And in that sense, they’re doomed to an eventual fall from grace, from new-and-experimental to predictable-and-reliable, from rare to ubiquitous (and on the bright side, from kind of busted to quote1really awesome). Because as nice as it would be for the tech press to shed its obsession with novelty, it doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. We’re just too far gone.

What we smartwatch fans can do, though, is relish the time we have with our new class of devices. Enjoy the newness of a lifestyle that allows for a Dick Tracy-style phone call, or a quick check of the wrist to read a text message. Because before you know it, these kinds of things will seem de rigueur, and we’ll all be shoving our Galaxy Gear 3s aside to make room for the newest in Smart Helmets or Super Shoes or what-have-you. And while we’ll be sad to watch the passing of the smartwatch into the annals of the formerly-cool, we’ll be more than happy to report on the benefits of the wearable-computing world’s Next Big Thing™.

But mark my words, people: when we hit implants, I’m done. Seriously. Stuff’s creepy.

Title image source: Digital Trends

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!