Smartwatches outsold traditional watches in the fourth quarter of 2018. The category saw a 51 percent increase in dollar sales for last year, along with a 61 percent increase in unit sales, according to recent data from NPD Group. One in four Americans aged 18 to 34 now own a smartwatch, and that is likely to increase.
Traditional watches did regain the majority of the market in Q1 2019, suggesting that not all consumers are ready to have a mini-computer on their wrists just yet, but devices that do more than tell the time are capturing a greater segment of the market, and that isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.
Global sales of smartwatches will increase from 51.3 million units last year to 91.8 million this year, reaching as high as 131.6 million in 2023, IDC has forecast. That is lot of mini-computers on the wrists of consumers in years to come.
Apple, Rolex, Fitbit, Patek Philippe and Samsung are now the top five smartwatch brands, according to NPD Group, signifying that a mix of features and fashion are the key drivers in the wearables category.
Apple has maintained the largest share of the smartwatch market, but Samsung is now the fastest growing brand, while companies such as Fitbit and Garmin are holding steady, according to a report from research firm Canalys.
Fitness functionality is crucial to many consumers, which is why we soon could see more athletic apparel companies enter the market.
Sporting goods company Puma earlier this year announced a partnership with the Fossil Group to bring out a line of wearables designed with active individuals in mind. Powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset and running on Google's Wear OS, these devices are designed to help athletes train and track goals, while still taking design cues from a traditional watchmaker.
Form Over Function
Despite the fact that fitness functionality is a key feature in smartwatches, a lot of emphasis increasingly is directed toward design elements.
"The wearables market is about form factor, not specific device function," said Steve Blum, principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.
"That's true whether it is smartwatches, fitness trackers, sleep monitors or something else," he told TechNewsWorld.
What is notable is that the market has seen a convergence of fitness devices and wearable computers that do much more than track heart rate or steps taken. They have greater connectivity with smartphones, which also have evolved from simple communication devices to a go-anywhere personal computers.
"Smartphones are networked handheld computers that are a convenient parking spot for any app, sensor or content that you can imagine," noted Blum. "It's an accident of history that we call them 'phones,' and similarly, what we'll end up calling a 'smartwatch' will just be a wrist-mounted platform for whatever can conveniently ride on it."
The Downsizing Trend
Smartwatches align with a trend that began more than three decades ago with personal computers. The first "personal computer," or "PC," was personal in that it stood on one's desk. The early "portable computers" were the size of small suitcases -- or at best a large (and heavy) briefcase.
PCs eventually became laptops, which led to the development of smaller devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
"Since the mainframe became a mini became a desktop became a notebook became a phone, the next step is obviously a wearable, which is by definition small and comfortable," suggested Roger L. Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.
"It was always the case that computers would keep getting smaller, and full-function machines are limited in size theoretically only by input and output methods," he told TechNewsWorld.
If a big screen is required for the computer, it simply can't get any smaller. The same holds true when a keyboard is required, added Kay, "but if output is small semasiographs of a known thing -- a small red pulsating heart that even a person with limited vision can distinguish from some other icon -- or output is sound, the form factor can get much smaller," Kay explained.
The same holds true when voice input is an option. Reduction in the size of sensors has allowed computers to become wearable, as they can pick up signals from the wearer.
"Thus, the primary function may be to monitor these input levels for changes and report out," said Kay. "That sounds like a fitness tracker."
End of the Fitness Tracker
The convergence of technology could come at a cost -- and not just reflected on price tags. Those who want a dedicated fitness device could be left with fewer options.
"I'm seeing fewer and fewer Fitbits and other dedicated fitness wearables on people, and more and more Apple Watches, and those are often used for step counting and other fitness-tracking purposes," said Blum.
In fact, 76 percent of respondents to a recent Parks Associates survey used their smartwatch to track steps. Sixty percent used them as a heart rate monitor, and 53 percent to track calories. Overall, 41 percent of smartwatch owners reported that the most commonly used apps were to track calories or to monitor weight loss goals.
"While fitness is a major feature of smartwatches, we need to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis," said Julie Sylvester, coproducer of Living in Digital Times.
"Fitness devices in general are moving towards more general health-based wearables," she told TechNewsWorld. "While most wrist-based devices have a time feature, smartwatches play a broader role, and lumping them together ignores these features and dilutes the role of the more specialized wrist-based fitness trackers used in health and stress monitoring."
Watches will continue to be multi-use devices simply because of how they are worn, and a portion of the workload always will include fitness tracking.
A watch "can be seen, felt and heard easily, consulted from various distances, and operated with the free hand," noted Kay.
"A necklace, for example, would be hard to see, but could be heard and felt easily enough. Much of the utility converges on the watch, which is really only a 'watch' in name," he pointed out.
"It keeps time, but it's more of a DickTracy-type thing you whisper into and look at," Kay remarked. "Watches subsume fitness-tracking as an app with specialized hardware, and fitness trackers try to do more and become 'watch'-like."
Even as a wearable computer, the smartwatch has a major drawback -- one that has plagued other personal or portable computers.
"Batteries are the major limiting factor inhibiting the collapse of everything into a single smartwatch," Blum said. "There are two problems: battery life and recharging. So far I haven't found a smartwatch that can operate with everything running, including GPS, for more than about eight hours straight."
That can be inconvenient for users who just want to put it on in the morning and let it do its thing all day long.
"It's a deal killer for people who need that level of functionality for long durations -- cyclists, hikers, triathletes, for example," noted Blum.
"Recharging requires users to take the watch off once or twice a day and leave it somewhere to charge," he said. "That can limit its usefulness as a sleep monitor, for example. It is also a lot more fussy than we're used to being about our watches."
As younger users are enticed by the form factor, the smartwatch/wearable category is going to have to solve the battery issue. Phones can be plugged in while a user is sitting at a desk, but that isn't the best solution for a wearable device.
"If someone can figure out a system for wirelessly recharging smartwatches with ambient energy, it'll be a game changer," said Blum.
"At that point, it won't be just fitness trackers that collapse into smartwatches, but also many smartphone functions as well," he predicted, with "maybe a low-level magnetic field on keyboards, steering wheels, handlebars, or anything else that's regularly near your wrist for more than a few minutes a day."