A trifecta of bad news for smartwatches means that it’s time for the consumer electronics industry to face reality: There’s simply no sizeable market for watches with apps on them, and users don’t want to have yet another screen nagging them about unread emails.
The latest evidence for this comes to us courtesy of IDC, which estimated Monday that Apple Watch shipments were down 71 percent during Q3 of 2016. The company only shipped 1.1 million units during that quarter, compared to 3.9 million a year ago, according to IDC, which estimate that Apple’s share of the wearables market has fallen from 17.5 percent to 4.9 percent.
IDC attributed some of this decline to Apple’s decision to introduce a new Apple Watch in mid-September, as well as “an aging line-up and an unintuitive user interface.” Both of the latter challenges could have conceivably been solved with the latest hardware and software updates, but IDC also cautioned that Apple’s future success with the device “will likely be muted as the smartwatch category continues to be challenged.”
Challenges that Lenovo knows all too well about. The Chinese manufacturer and owner of the Moto mobile device brand was one of the first to embrace Google’s Android-based smartwatches. Last week, Lenovo revealed that it wasn’t going to release a new smartwatch any time soon. “Wearables do not have broad enough appeal for us to continue to build on it year after year,” Lenovo’s head of global product development for the Moto brand Shakil Barkat told The Verge last week.
And if that wasn’t already enough bad news for smartwatches, last week also saw the sale of smartwatch startup Pebble for a reported $40 million to wearables giant Fitbit. Pebble was one of the early pioneers of phone-connected smartwatches, and was able to get lots of people excited about the device category when it raised more than $30 million in two crowdfunding rounds, selling an estimated 180,000 watches to early backers.
Pebble reportedly at one point turned down a $740 million takeover offer from Japanese watchmaker Citizen. Fitbit’s $40 million acquisition barely covers the company’s debts, according to TechCrunch, and The Information reported last week that the Pebble brand will be phased out after the acquisition.
Pebble’s acquisition is also notable because of the acquirer: Fitbit has had its own struggles, but the company’s fitness trackers do sell a lot better than smartwatches. Fitbit shipped 5.4 million wearables during Q3, according to IDC, growing 11 percent year-over-year, giving the company a total market share of 23 percent.
Fitness trackers sell better than smartwatches in part because they’re cheaper, but they also promise to solve a clearly-defined problem. Smartwatches on the other hand try to do a little bit of everything, and in turn aren’t really good at any one thing.
What’s more, many of the promises of smartwatches are better solved by other devices. Want to quickly check your email? Just take out your phone. Need to set a reminder, add something to your shopping list, or even quickly look something up? Amazon Echo or Google Home to the rescue.
Those two devices in particular are also better answers to the fundamental premise of smartwatches: Apple, Pebble and others promised consumers less reliance on the screen in their pocket, but replaced it with another screen on their wrists, which was simply too small of a step to establish a whole new category of products on their own.
The real breakthrough is devices that don’t use any screen at all — anything else is just a stopgap.