It's hard to imagine now, but it was Sony that introduced the smartwatch to the world, back in 2010. Sony sold all of 250,000 smartwatches in 2013, generating an estimated $50 million in revenues. Not bad, but hardly earth-shattering results for a $21 billion company. But Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) garnered global attention when it took the wrapping off its own watch, as some expected the $2.5 billion smartwatch market to explode this year. Or so many iFans and smartwatch aficionados thought.
Alas, Apple's "next great thing" has turned out to be little different than every other wearable device on the market, with a few unique, nifty features. The problem is, no one, and that includes some of the biggest tech players on the planet, has made a watch that's anything close to being truly "smart." I don't know about you, but when rumors began circulating about a smartwatch ahead of Sony's unveiling all those years ago, I had visions of a light, durable watch that would keep users connected to the rest of the world, much like smartphones do today. To date? No one's even close.
The features of Apple's new watch that supposedly distinguish it from competitive devices including Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Galaxy Gear S and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Moto 360 are its super-tough, sapphire screen. Oh, and let's not forget there are three Apple watches to choose from, including one made from 18-carat gold.
Apple's new watch has a walkie-talkie-like function, assuming other Watch owners are in the vicinity. The touchscreen is also a pretty slick feature, and like virtually every other smartwatch on the market, it will buzz you to let you know you've received a notification of some kind. Then, you can pull out your iPhone -- 5 or newer only, please -- and check your email or text.
Naturally, as is the case with Google's and Samsung's wearable devices, Apple's Watch comes equipped with a host of health-related sensors to track your heart rate, breathing, and related bodily functions for the health-conscious user. There are even a couple of apps available that will prompt the Watch to "nudge" you, as a reminder to stand or move at certain points during the day.
Why smartwatches will collect dust
One of the biggest problems with smartwatches, regardless of the manufacturer, is that as a stand-alone device, they're little more than a health monitoring tool and messaging unit. Every smartwatch on the market requires a companion smartphone -- from the smartwatch's manufacturer, naturally -- for it to provide any real value. In other words, on its own, there's very little "smart" about a smartwatch. And Apple's Watch is no different, requiring an iPhone to enable its WiFi and Bluetooth functionality.
In a study conducted earlier this year, a full one-third of fitness tracker device owners in the U.S. completely abandoned the device within six months. Like the Stairmaster collecting dust in the garage, Americans have the best of intentions when it comes to getting healthy, but too often our get-up-and-go initiative gets up and leaves.
For those of us who have been around a while, that vibrating feature virtually every smartwatch has that tells a user they've received an email or text? That used to be called a "pager," and no one's going to confuse a device from the 1980's as smart.
To be truly smart, a watch needs to be able to connect to the outside world via the Internet: to send and receive emails rather than simply employ pager-like alerts, and include communication and data processing capabilities. According to Intel, its "Edison" development platform is capable of all those functions, and will take smartwatches "to the next level, connecting them to the Internet and allowing devices to communicate with each other as well as share and store data to the cloud." Now that would really make a smartwatch smart, rather than simply the companion device it is today.
Final Foolish thoughts
If Intel, or another tech innovator, is actually able to mass market a truly smart watch, one that harnesses the power of the Internet and allows users to seamlessly integrate their wearable device with their smartphones, tablets, and the like, then consumer's will truly have a smartwatch alternative. Until then? Apple's, Google's, and Samsung's, "smart" watches will occupy little more than a niche market, before they begin collecting dust alongside that little-used Stairmaster.
Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.