IFA 2016 marked the death of the ugly smartwatch – now Apple has to catch up

If you take the handful of smartwatches on display at this year’s IFA and put them next to most of those launched over the past couple of years, there’s a noticeable difference.

We’ve reached the point where smartwatches have stopped looking like bits of tech for our wrists and started looking like, well, watches.

You’ll also realise that the square smartwatch is gone. Dead. All hail the circular face! Square faces might make life easier for app developers – and provide more space for information – but the result is too often a watch that looks like a gadget – and I don’t want that. You don’t want that.

I’m not saying we’re anywhere near approaching the peak of smartwatch design, but it’s clear how far the market has come and the direction it’s going in.

Samsung’s Gear S3 looks fantastic, and is far more likely to turn the head of a classic watch wearer, while Asus revealed its Zenwatch 3, ditching the square design in favour of a circular, more eye-pleasing look.

Meanwhile Fossil’s new Android Wear watches, the Q Wander and Q Marshal, are two of the best-looking smartwatches we’ve seen, and even the new Sony FES Watch U looks more like a proper timepiece.

You might also have noted that Samsung’s typically dramatic, half-hour IFA conference was totally dedicated to a watch, nary a new smartphone phone in sight. It was a ringing endorsement that the smartwatch is mainstream enough to own a stage of its own.

And as squirmingly awkward as much of the Samsung chat was (oh God, it was awful) the emphasis that kept getting put on design first, tech second, was really important.

Smartwatch makers have woken up to the fact that most people won’t wear something they think is ugly, even if it offers everything but the kitchen sink in terms of features. Thinking needs to start at the watch and work towards “smart”, rather than vice versa.

Read this: Fossil’s smart analogue watches have arrived

It made me wonder how long Apple will be able to get away without a circular option. There are many things I like about the Apple Watch, and I certainly wouldn’t call it ugly, but its square face is a bugbear of mine.

And while I wear it on a daily basis, I know people who don’t just on the merit of it how it looks. Sure, some people like square watches, but plenty don’t.

It’s funny: Apple did its typical thing of waiting in the sidelines and watching everyone else make mistakes before making its grand entry, but it ended up offering something that wasn’t miles ahead of the competition, and in some ways now looks a bit behind.

None of it is easy, I appreciate. There’s a tension between style and functionality that manufacturers must wrestle with, but the better they look, the more they’ll succeed – that much is certain. For me, IFA was a big step in the right direction.