Smart watches may need to be dumber than you think

It has been an interesting week for smart watches, with yet another launch of Apple Watch – the third, and counting – which at least this time gave us pricing and a US delivery date.

Perhaps it was the fatigue of all these launches that left WatchPro underwhelmed by the product.

We are not alone. The fashion press almost universally labelled it a techie product that didn’t have much cross-over appeal for watch lovers.

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I spent yesterday at a small exhibition in London that was promoting the fledgling wearable technology industry. Withings, Martian, Samsung and a few other smartwatch brands were there, and it was clear that brands were taking very different approaches to this category.

The likes of Samsung might not admit it, but to consumers the company’s smartwatches are seen as companion gadgets to their smart phones.

Martian is more in the hybrid camp, with pieces that look and behave much more like traditional watches, but have small displays for notifications like incoming phone calls or messages.

You can tell this industry is at a very early stage, because several of the smart phone start ups had their world-wide CEOs available at the exhibition. I chatted to a couple with a specific focus on whether they saw traditional watch retailers like jewellers as viable sales channels.

Some did, but one answer in particular stuck with me. One CEO, who I won’t name, said that they had tried pushing smart watches through traditional watch retailers but gave up because the smartwatches required shop staff to be highly trained in the technical aspects of the watches, and this was not really their strength.

They are used to selling watches on their design, materials and history, the CEO added.

This issue had not really occurred to me until yesterday, but left me with mixed feelings about whether the technical complexity of smart watches from the likes of Samsung and Apple makes them less or more menacing to normal watch brands and their retailers.

On the positive side, smart watches that require considerable technical support will probably always be boxed into a world of technology enthusiasts. That rules out most over-40s who still haven’t got to grips with all the features of their smart phones, and certainly don’t need another gadget to annoy them.

On the negative side, if smartwatches take off, they are more likely to be sold through electronics retailers, potentially sidelining traditional watch brands and retailers in the battle for people’s wrists.

In this context, a middle way looks all the more appealing, with mainstream watch makers like Swatch Group, Guess and Timex adding a little bit of smart functionality to timepieces, but ensuring that they continue to perform like wristwatches when it comes to desirable attributes like years of battery life and water resistance.

Importantly, they will be as idiot-proof as the proverbial Mickey Mouse watch.

In other words, the future of smart watches might be less smart than people currently fear.

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