5 Ways Apple Could Revive Slumping Smartwatch Sales

Sorry, smartwatches, we're just not into you right now.

Global smartwatch sales during the second quarter fell 32 percent from the same period a year ago, according to figures tallied by market research firm IDC. That's the first time the fledgling smartwatch market has seen a sales dip, IDC adds.
It doesn't take too much detective work to figure out what's causing sales to crater. Last year at this time, Apple — the market leader in smartwatches — was enjoying its first quarter of sales for the brand new Apple Watch. Since then, Apple has released a few new bands, but it's otherwise been all quiet on the hardware front, as the company readies the next Apple Watch, reportedly with a fall release in mind.

MORE: Apple Watch 2 Rumors: Release Date, New Features

That's certainly what IDC is pinpointing as the issue. "Consumers have held off on smartwatch purchases since early in 2016 in anticipation of a hardware refresh, and improvements in watchOS are not expected until later this year, effectively stalling Apple Watch sales," said Jitesh Ubrani, IDC's senior research analyst for mobile device trackers, in a statement accompanying the second-quarter sales report.

Apple was the only company among the top five smartwatch makers to see a year-over-year decline this quarter, IDC says. But that only emphasizes how large a shadow the Apple Watch casts over the rest of the market.

That's why a new Apple Watch will certainly boost those sales figures. But if Apple Watch 2 is really going to give the market a shot in the arm, it's going to need features that not only convince existing users to upgrade from that year-old watch on their wrists but also inspires people who've yet to embrace smartwatches to make the leap. Here's a quick rundown of how an Apple Watch — or any smartwatch that wants to stand out — can rekindle the market's interest in new watches.

Cut the Ties to the Smartphone

If you wanted to get the most out of your Apple Watch when it first launched, you had to keep an iPhone close at hand. That way, the watch would be able to access the apps you had on your phone. Apple's watchOS 2 software update improved matters somewhat by letting developers build native apps that could run on the watch, and Apple now requires all apps to offer native functionality. This fall's watchOS 3 update promises to make those apps launch faster as well.

But there's still more to be done to make the Apple Watch stand out on its own. Cellular connectivity would go a long way to making the watch more attractive to people who don't necessarily want to have a watch and a phone on them at all times for getting notifications on your watch and placing calls from your wrist. Being able to connect to an LTE network on its own isn't a silver bullet for smartwatches — the LG Watch Urbane LTE offers that feature, but it's still a pretty mediocre device — but it would certainly add to the Apple Watch's already impressive feature set.

Boost the Battery Life

Any updated mobile device should boast a better battery than whatever it's replacing, but that's especially critical with smartwatches, which typically need a charge at the end of each day to keep on ticking. (The exception: The Pebble Time Steel, which can last more than a week, though it uses a less power-hungry e-ink display.)

The first Apple Watch claims to offer 18 hours of battery life, and during the Tom's Guide review, we made it through the day with more than 20 percent of its battery still remaining. Still, adding another day's worth of battery to the next Apple Watch might address the complaint that a smartwatch just gives you one more thing you need to remember to charge each night.

Make It Easier to Find Apps

The challenge with any smartwatch is making it as easy to navigate that tiny watchface as it is a comparatively larger smartphone screen. Apple's promising some progress here, with the addition of a dock in watchOS 3 that will lets you scroll through a list of your favorite apps, instead of poking at a tiny icon. It will depend on whether watchOS delivers this improved ease of use, but the dock could make more people comfortable with strapping a smartwatch onto their wrist.

The dock feature of watchOS 3 during a demo at WWDC

The dock feature of watchOS 3 during a demo at WWDC

Apple isn't the only watch maker thinking about improved ways to navigate around a smartwatch. Earlier this year, Samsung filed a patent that would use a projector on a smartwatch to extend the watch's interface, literally putting controls in the palm of your hand.

An On-Board Camera

Dick Tracy promised me a video wrist-watch, and dammit, I want what was promised me.

Seriously, though, Apple is reportedly going to stick a FaceTime camera for video calls on a future watch. If it'd like to see those sales pick up, it had best make that the Apple Watch 2.

Expand the Fitness Features

Whether it was by design or just a happy accident, the Apple Watch's ability to track just how much you move, stand up and exercise. Apple is expanding the Activity Tracker's bag of tricks in watchOS 3, but positioning the watch as an important tool for helping you live a healthier life — and adding the feature and apps to back that up — would broaden the device's appeal beyond just a cool tech toy.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.