A few short years ago, I was really excited about smartwatches.
Looking back, it's not hard to see why. Google's early-2014 launch of the Android Wear platform did exactly what I had been hoping a smartwatch would come along and do: It provided a simple interface for the sorts of things that actually made sense for the form -- things like smart notification management, smart on-the-go input, and smart context (via Google Now).
Sure, the platform also had support for sensors and all that other fancy stuff -- but it was what Wear didn't try to be that made it especially interesting. Unlike other wearable-tech efforts, the platform didn't try to cram lots of tiny buttons and complex commands into an awkward-to-use wrist-based screen. It reframed the smartwatch to be less about performing grand tasks and more about transmitting pertinent info quickly and without fuss. Even today, that simplicity and notification-first focus (with both regular notifications and predictive Now-powered alerts) sets Wear apart from the more complicated and app-centric setups other smartwatch platforms provide.
I wore Wear pretty regularly for a while -- first with the early demo devices, then with the first-gen Moto 360, the LG G Watch Urbane (gesundheit!), and finally the Huawei Watch (which still sits on a counter next to my desk).
I think Wear worked for me because I saw it for what it was: not a life-changing, wholly new sort of utility but rather a supplement to my smartphone -- a handy accessory that made it easier for me to keep up with information and take care of basic tasks. Revolutionary? Nope. But convenient? Absolutely: It was a device that let me stay connected without constantly pulling out my phone, as I wrote three months into my Wear experience:
For now, the Android Wear smartwatch remains more of a luxury accessory than any sort of must-have gadget -- but for those who want to be hyper-connected and have the cash to spend, it's an increasingly compelling way to bring a world of information one step closer to your brain.
Ironically enough, I've realized that same statement now explains why Wear stopped fitting into my life -- and why I haven't worn my Wear watch in a long, long while.
It's actually quite simple: As I observed at the get-go, a screen on your wrist inherently keeps you more plugged in and connected with the virtual world. Early on in my Wear adventure, that was a positive. But as I've alluded to in other recent columns, I've reached a point where I prefer to be less connected more of the time. I'm actively trying to put my phone away and remain fully present in my physical environment -- to use technology deliberately and in a way that enhances my life but to avoid letting it serve as an always-present source of distraction.
In other words, I no longer relish the idea of being hyper-connected. I want to look at my screens and deal with interruptions less frequently, not more. And that kinda goes against the most practical benefit a smartwatch provides.
Interestingly, I noted this same feeling way back in December of 2014:
On a broader and more philosophical level, there are times when I feel like Android Wear makes me more connected than I want to be. Sometimes, I like to be in the moment and not feel tethered to my electronic devices -- and having a screen right on my wrist kind of runs counter to that goal. Those are the days when I leave the [Moto] 360 at home and strap on an old-fashioned analog watch or no watch at all, and I must admit that it's kind of refreshing to have my limbs free of flashing distractions for a change. For me, at least, the heightened connectivity and constant awareness Wear provides isn't necessarily something I want all the time.
At that point, my yearning to avoid hyper-connection was more than the exception than the rule. Over the past months, the balance has shifted. (I blame fatherhood.) I've also been traveling less as of late, which eliminates another scenario in which a smartwatch used to be useful. (Again: fatherhood.)
And it appears I'm not the only one for whom the enthusiasm is fading. Last week, word broke that Motorola -- the company that created the first truly marketable Android Wear device -- has put its smartwatch development on hold indefinitely, as it believes the market doesn't have "broad enough appeal" to warrant ongoing work.
Huawei hasn't released a new Wear device since its original 2015 effort, meanwhile, while Samsung has pivoted to its own Tizen platform for its fledgling wearable products. And LG's been quiet ever since its ill-fated Watch Urbane sequel disaster in late 2015 (and let's be honest, even if not for the technical issues surrounding that product, it sounded pretty awful to begin with).
It's no wonder those companies are feeling hesitant -- because on a broader level, the smartwatch market has been in a freefall for a while now. According to the industry tracking team at IDC (which is owned by the same parent company as Computerworld), smartwatch shipments dropped a whopping 52% from fall 2015 to fall 2016. IDC concludes it's clear that, despite initial hopes to the contrary, the smartwatch concept is just "not for everyone." Heck, even Apple's magical wrist rectangle may be hitting a rough patch (though Apple's magical CEO kinda-sorta vaguely denies it). And don't forget about the unfortunate saga of smartwatch pioneer Pebble.
For its part, Google is now working on turning Wear into a more app-centric experience. The new Wear 2.0 platform, currently slated to come out in the first quarter of 2017, shifts away from the original notification-centric focus and to something that more closely resembles Apple's vision for wearables.
Suffice it to say, I suspect that'll only create more of a gap between what I want from technology these days and what Wear devices will provide. But hey, time will tell.
Speaking of time, my months of strapping digital devices to my wrist did have one unexpected effect: They got me back in the habit of wearing watches -- something I hadn't done in years. And while the constant connectivity that comes with a smartwatch may not be what I need right now, going back to a regular ol' timepiece has proven to be just the ticket.
I guess some things in life truly are timeless.