No category of wearable tech has had a more turbulent year than the smartwatch. There have been ups. There have been downs. Then Fitbit bought Pebble and everyone lost their minds.
2016 proved that smartwatches are struggling to find their place in the wearable world, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s over, and 2017 could be a fascinating time for these devices as lessons from this year are taken away and applied to next year’s wearables.
With so much having gone on in 2016, we’ve broken down the year into the big smartwatch events that made headlines and got us talking.
Nokia finds the power Withing
Remember Nokia? Remember Snake? Sure you do. The Finnish company made sure we all remembered it at the start of the year when it bought Withings, making its digital health ambitions pretty clear. “This is the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the history of Nokia Technologies as we extend our product portfolio to include a series of powerful digital health technologies,” said Ramzi Haidamus, president of Nokia Technologies, at the time. We may never get to see Nokia’s cancelled Moonraker watch, but it certainly entered the wearable fray with Withings.
Fossil and the rise of the hybrid
Fossil entered 2016 with a promise to launch 100 wearables before the year was out, an impressive commitment but one we didn’t doubt the watch manufacturer could manage. The company has licences with a large number of familiar names including Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Diesel, so all the pieces were in place.
Read next: The best hybrid smartwatches of 2016
It also acquired Misfit at the end of 2015 for a cool $260 million, and all eyes were on the fitness tracking company to see how the Fossil collaboration would manifest. In our opinion Fossil has been the main driving force behind 2016’s rise of hybrid smartwatches and fitness trackers, with an impressive range already available.
There’s no denying that looks are an essential part of wearables, and Fossil’s pedigree in style has helped it excel with some great devices. They haven’t all been winners, but notable favourites include the Skagen Hagen Connected and the Kate Spade Metro Grand. Meanwhile Withings delivered the Activité Steel and even Hugo Boss got in on the action. Shout out to the Garmin Vivomove too.
Android Wear 2, where are you?
In September Google announced it was delaying the launch of Android Wear 2 into early 2017, disappointing Wear users the world over – not least Wareable Editor in Chief Paul Lamkin. While more details about the update offered some consolation, it was still bad news for smartwatch manufacturers who may have been waiting for Android Wear 2.0 before launching their next device.
This may be why the second half of the year was lighter on Android Wear wearables, and with talk of Huawei jumping to Samsung’s Tizen, we wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more smartwatch makers taking their own route unless Google starts doubling down on its wearable OS.
Samsung strikes back
To say it’s not been the best year for Samsung would be a tad disingenuous, but melting Note 7s aside it did also launch a new smartwatch, the Gear S3, which came in two flavours and was far less explode-y. It’s a decent smartwatch; a little big, perhaps, and not quite the watch we were hoping for, but it still managed to impress in a number of ways.
Samsung’s launch event, held at IFA, was notable for being focused entirely on its new smartwatch – a surefire sign that wearables had hit the mainstream.
The year’s biggest smartwatch reviews
- Samsung Gear S3 reviewBigger doesn’t always equal better
- Apple Watch Series 2 reviewApple’s second smartwatch is sportier, but that’s not all there is to like
- Nixon The Mission reviewOne for the surfers and skiers
- Misfit Phase reviewMinimal design, tactile smarts
- Polar M600 reviewPolar’s first Android Wear watch doesn’t feel like a smartwatch
- Michael Kors Access reviewAndroid Wear goes mainstream with the new Bradshaw and Dylan smartwatches
How’d you like them Apples?
A lot has been riding on Apple. While we wouldn’t put all our faith in analyst figures until Tim Cook actually reveals some solid sales numbers, it’s clear that Apple’s watch is doing quite well compared to its rivals. But Apple also decided to wait 18 months to launch its follow-up smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 2.
Apple’s sequel put more focus on fitness and activity, adding two much-sought-after new features: waterproofing and built-in GPS.
It also refreshed the first model – now called Series 1 – to make it faster. The downside is that early adopters got a bit stung, but there’s no denying the Series 2 is one of the best smartwatches out there right now. The new features were ones we’d talked about for a long time, but what will Series 3 bring? More difficult to speculate, that one.
21 Slump Street
In October research firm IDC reported that smartwatches were experiencing a bit of a lull, with third-quarter shipments dropping 51.6% year-on-year. Ouch. And even with Apple on top, that was estimated to have had a 72% decline. IDC reported that, while wearables were doing well, smartwatches were definitely performing the worst.
Tim Cook then responded, saying Apple Watch sales were “off the charts”, although wouldn’t say exactly how far off – or which charts. To date, Apple still hasn’t revealed exact sales figures for its Watch.
Motorola steps back, but for how long?
There was more bad news as Motorola announced at the start of December that it had no plans for another smartwatch. “Wearables do not have broad enough appeal for us to continue to build on it year after year,” said Shakil Barkat, Moto’s head of global product development.
It doesn’t sound like it’s the end of the road for Motorola’s wearables, but we wouldn’t bet on seeing a new smartwatch soon. Maybe once Android 2.0 is out in the world, Motorola will be back with a vengeance. We can but hope.
Fitbit ends the year with a Pebble in its pocket
2016 kept the biggest news until last, with Fitbit announcing it was to snatch up Pebble in December. The news had been rumoured for a few days, but it wasn’t until it broke that we learned Fitbit was only to buy the software, and leave the hardware out to rot.
Pebble owners were understandably furious, especially those who had just backed the Pebble 2 and Time 2 (we’ll never see the latter, sadly), but Pebble has committed to keeping its services running through 2017 – though there’s no guarantee beyond that. Now all eyes are on Fitbit to see what it does with the Pebble property it has acquired.