For the smartwatch to reach popular adoption, it actually needs to work first

By James Robinson , written on May 7, 2014

From The News Desk

Free advice for anyone with a new product: Make one that actually works.

Fixya, a question-and-answer site for people struggling with their technology, today published a Smartwatch Report based on over 6,000 complaints and problems lodged on its site to date about the new technology. The grumblings picked up by Fixya only further the narrative of smartwatches as a technology searching for a purpose, struggling to perform even the basic functions they’ve marketed themselves on.

The smartwatch was pegged initially as a great new way for users to get notifications about calls, text messages and email on their wrist, rather than having to go to the cruel and elaborate lengths of having to reach into their pocket and take out their phone. Except, according to Fixya’s report said notifications are one of the biggest disappointments for smartwatch users. Fifteen percent of all people who had taken to for advice about the smartwatch had issues with them. The concerns were partly obvious: people using the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Martian Passport found the notifications simply too small. (But hey, it’s hard to feel to sorry for that pain point when someone is trying to use a watch, as a computer.) People using the SONY SW2 found that the notifications had too much lag getting from the phone to the watch.

The other major complaints were with speaker quality and waterproofing (both, like notifications, were the cause of 15 percent of all troubleshooting on Fixya about the smartwatch). The futuristic rub of the smartwatch was that while it was saving you all of that time you were previously wasting reaching into your pockets, you could also take phone calls on your wrist, a little like Maxwell Smart. Some users of the I’m Watch smartwatch and the Martian Passport reported bad call quality and static so severe that it rendered conversation useless outside of a still, empty room.

Fixya’s findings were a catalog of failings of the smartwatches core functions. The watches weren’t waterproof enough. Users of all of the watches looked at, bar the Pebble, complained that the battery life was much lower than promised. The Pebble came out best out of all five phones looked at, but its lack of voice control and its non-touchscreen interface still got people’s shackles up.

“There’s a lot of noise about smartwatches, but you don’t see them on people’s wrists,” Francois Thiebaud, an executive for Swatch, commented at the end of March. He’s right. Outside of the early adopter set, the smartwatch hasn’t caught. There were reports that just under 2 million were sold in 2013, still not a large number and bumped up by Samsung’s report that they’d shipped 800,000 of the Galaxy Gear, which many people felt was over-inflated by the company bundling sales with Samsung phones.

Analysis of this has brought up myriad reasons why this is so: wearables is waiting on its iPhone moment still, a new generation of consumers has grown up without a watch on their arm, they’ve been hideously designed so far, they haven’t yet found a way to be useful.

Which is all moot if the devices themselves don’t really work that well.

Who would have thought that trying to recreate the functionality of a smartphone inside what we expect culturally from a watch would’ve been so fiddly and difficult?

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]