Updated to reflect revised Apple Watch sales estimates. (Thanks, SocialBrian!)
I remember the moment I realized smartwatches had a chance at being the next big thing in mobile. It was the spring of 2012, I’d just spent a week with the original Pebble, and I suddenly found myself unable to live without it. It was 1999 all over again: I was a wristwatch-wearing man, and leaving the house without it prompted angry expletives and a day full of accidental glances at an empty wrist.
Three years later, smartwatches have made the jump to the mainstream consciousness. No longer confined to the lovable indie charm of Pebble or Martian, watches from Samsung, Google and Apple have flooded the market, appearing in ads on television and –at least here in Boston– on a great many wrists in the wild.
Yet they’re still far from being universally accepted. Despite Google shipping a quarter-million Android Wear devices last year, Pebble moving over a million, and Apple selling an estimated 2.8 million Watches since its launch last month, the comment sections of wearable reviews are still littered with the objections of those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that this new category offers any utility to the average consumer. While it’s true that this nascent category certainly bears its share of duds, many of the arguments against the smartwatch are getting pretty stale after three years of repetition. Here are the top four examples I could stand never to see again.
“They don’t do anything my smartphone doesn’t already do”
This is probably the most common of the various anti-smartwatch arguments, and it’s also the most shortsighted. It’s popular because of how alluring it is in its simplicity: smartwatches are by their very nature limited in functionality, so why would an intelligent person buy an accessory that’s just duplicating the functionality of their smartphone, but doing it worse?
The answer: because doing a job differently isn’t the same as doing it worse. Smartwatches are at their best when they don’t bite off more than they can chew. That’s why the original Pebble was so successful; it set out to be a simple alert device, instead of trying to replicate a ton of smartphone features on a smaller screen. The result was an accessory that took one of the primary features of a smartphone (notification delivery) and transported it to your wrist, so you didn’t have to take your phone out of your pocket every time someone liked one of your Instagram photos or favorited one of your tweets. I remember being surprised when I discovered how many of my daily notifications actually required no action on my part beyond reading them and nodding. And as Joe Levi recently confirmed, all that checking you’re doing on your watch instead of your phone can lead to significantly improved battery life on the latter.
Even today, smartwatches are still at their best when they stick to their core function as a notification relay. On a car trip last week, my phone –which I was using to navigate– fell out of its dashboard holder and slid under the seat while I was driving. Because I was wearing my Moto 360, though, it didn’t matter: I continued to get turn-by-turn directions on my wrist, and I completed the rest of the 20-minute drive without incident.
“Smartphones have already made the wristwatch obsolete”
The mobile phone’s displacement of the wristwatch as the new timekeeping implement of the 21st century was insidious. Unless you worked in the watch industry, you probably didn’t notice it. But sure enough, as more and more clock-sporting phones flooded the marketplace, fewer and fewer watches dotted the wrists of the populace. I bucked the trend for years thanks to my awesome Citizen Stars & Stripes, but when that watch fell on hard times (literally: I smashed it to pieces by dropping it on a brick walkway), I didn’t replace it because I had a phone to tell me the time.
But that move, while cost-effective, was also a huge step backward in convenience. Fishing around in a pocket for a timepiece worked for us for a long time – back when the triple-expansion steam engine was cutting-edge technology. There’s a reason we moved from pocketwatches to wristwatches a century ago: the latter category was (and continues to be) a much more practical convenience. Yet smartwatch opponents suggest that the concept of the wristwatch is somehow more antiquated, that fumbling in a pocket for a phone is somehow better than having glanceable access via a device you wear on one of the most accessible locations on your body. In truth, the return of the wristborne timepiece is a return to a more convenient lifestyle; it was our move away from it that made no sense.
“It’s just another thing I have to charge”
The conventional wristwatch still has a leg up on its smart counterparts. “Dumb” watches offer battery life measured in years, while you’d be lucky to have most smartwatches last you through dessert. The result is a product you need to charge every night (or at least every week), and no one wants yet another thing to worry about.
But again, we’ve been here before. Ten years ago, it was common to find phones capable of lasting four or five days on a single charge. Then came the smartphone revolution, and suddenly you were up Deadphone Creek without a paddle if you didn’t remember to plug the thing in before you went to bed. Did we abandon smartphones and scurry back to our carefree dumbphone days? Of course not. We changed our habits then, and we’ll do it again.
Admittedly, that transition will be much easier if smartwatch makers follow Motorola’s example and include docks with their watches. Charging my Moto 360 has become part of my nightly bedtime ritual, and I don’t resent it at all because in exchange, I get a handy bedside clock. This makes the already-minor inconvenience even easier to handle – something Apple seems eager to emulate in the next iteration of its Watch software.
“It’s just a gimmick for companies to make more money off you”
The final anti-smartwatch argument is one the cynical side of me understands and respects. It goes like this: “all these companies are just panicking because smartphones are flatlining and tablet sales are going over a cliff. They’re making up a whole new category just to they can keep fleecing you.”
To which I respond: of freaking course they are. This is what corporations always do: find new avenues into your pockets by making up new products – and in some cases, new product categories. So what?
Think about the mobile technology you’ve bought in the past year. How are smartwatches any less worthy of your dollars than a wireless charger for your Lumia 830, or a bamboo skin for your HTC One M9, or a thermal camera for your Galaxy S6? Do smartwatches –which offer far more convenience and utility than, say, an exercise band– really warrant being treated like some kind of second-class accessory, a fad destined to die out once a weary public gets tired of being force-fed the ostensible “next big thing?”
I don’t mean to be entirely dismissive. Do I chafe at the whiff of opportunism I get from manufacturers jumping headlong into wearables to make a quick buck? Yes. Do I wish smartwatches had better battery life? You bet. Do I think they’ve got a long way to go before I can fully recommend them to geeks and non-geeks alike? Absolutely.
But every new product category has faced challenges like these, and I’m tired of people dismissing smartwatches with the same tired arguments in the comments. Three years later, my response to most of them remains the same: have you tried a smartwatch yourself? If so, and you still don’t like them, that’s fine. If not, you owe it to yourself to strap one on; it just might change your (mobile) life.
This post brought to you by the Smartwatch Lobbying Association of America. (Just kidding, but we wanted to get ahead of the accusations of payoffs down in the comments.) Anyway, if you want to read more of our thoughts on wearable tech, check out our reviews of the Pebble Time, Moto 360, LG Watch Urbane, and Apple Watch … and then check out the flip side of the argument with 7 reasons smartwatches are dumb!