Remember when we thought smartwatches and wearable technology were going to change the world?
According to much of the consumer tech press, the new Apple Watch Series 4 stole the show from the iPhones announced in Apple’s big fall press event. Reviews were generally positive for the new wearable device, and along with the new edge-to-edge display and other improvements, much of the love centered around new heart-health monitoring features, including an electrocardiogram (ECG), low heart rate detection, and atrial fibrillation (AFib) detection. There’s also a new fall-detection feature designed to automatically summon help if needed.
Apple also heavily touted new fitness functions, along with sophisticated new workout features, such as “Automatic workout detection. New yoga and hiking workouts. Advanced features for runners like cadence and pace alerts.”
A win for Apple, a loss for smartwatches
Put it all together and that may seem like a big win for the Apple Watch — and maybe it is — but it’s also a huge loss for the smartwatch category as a whole.
Let me explain.
Leaving aside the wisdom of entrusting your cardiac health to a smartwatch, the new Apple Watch’s wholehearted focus on fitness and health metrics represents a stunning retreat from the original promise of wearable technology — and especially the Apple Watch.
When the Apple Watch debuted in 2015, it was going to change the world. As I wrote back then, it was going to legitimize the entire category of wearable computing, promising to move beyond fitness tracking to making wearable tech seem cool. Despite the inclusion of a super-expensive luxury version (now canceled), it didn’t. That failure became clear soon after the device’s initial launch, and now, with the launch of the Apple Watch Series 4, those grandiose goals have been pretty much abandoned, if not completely forgotten.
A glorified medical device
Instead, despite a revised design, some interesting band options, and improved graphics, today’s Apple Watch has officially become a glorified medical device. And it’s just as sexy and stylish as that description suggests.
Unfortunately, it’s not like some other device has stolen the Apple Watch’s thunder to move wearable tech into the realm of coolness. After all, the other high-profile wearable technology device, Google Glass, was literally laughed out of polite society and now scrambles to find a home in industrial uses cases. Valuable to be sure, but hardly helping to secure wearable tech’s place in the mainstream. Even Snap’s heavily hyped and much less expensive Spectacles didn’t help revive the category, reportedly selling far below expectations and leaving $40 million in unsold inventory.
Better than Google Glass
Four years ago, I wrote about how Google Glass set wearable computing back 10 years. The Apple Watch is hardly a debacle of that order. It’s selling relatively well, and it holds an enviable market share among smartwatches.
And yet, it was only a few years ago that we were hoping for so much more. Call me a crazy optimist, but I still believe that wearable technology will someday be considered essential for almost everyone, playing an essential role in many areas of our personal and business lives. But the Apple Watch Series 4, with all its medical and fitness capabilities, isn’t really getting us much closer to that goal.
Of course, if the new heart-monitoring and fall-detection features end up saving lives, I guess we can live with that in the meantime.
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