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“i-watch” form the sidelines: a great idea or too little too soon?

Dick Tracy was wearing a “smartwatch” way back in 1946. So the idea of a smartwatch is nothing new, at least not in the imagination of Chester Gould, Dick Tracy’s creator.

Isolated female hands with white smartwatch with email on the screen on a background of green grass

I don’t know if or when the smartwatch as a category will grow into a big market. From the sidelines, currently it doesn’t offer me a compelling reason to hire it to get an important job done.

But I can envision one day, using a smartwatch to interact with both my digital environment and physical world as the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more pervasive.

I might for example, use a smartwatch to open my house door by scanning my fingerprint on it. Or use my smartwatch to pay at the checkout line, or board a train. And maybe even replace my smartphone with my Dick Tracy watch.

When it comes to the digital future – anything imaginable is probably. But the future is hard to predict, and the adoption cycle of new technologies and innovations take time to diffuse (see my article on diffusion of innovation). Smartwatches are no different.

Figure 1: Product Adoption Curve and the Chasm

So what will it take for smartphones to become adopted by the early majority?

A common attribute shared by truly new technologies is that it takes time for the invention to diffuse into a society (market). For new technologies, it not only takes time to build out the infrastructure (for example the IP network had to exist before the word-wide-web could exist), but also time to change people’s behavior to accept and adopt the new paradigm (i.e. feeling confident and safe to shop on line).

According to Everett Rogers, a pioneer in the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, there are five fundamental attributes that determine the likelihood of an innovation being adopted:

Relative Advantage

The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than the idea it supersedes. The degree of relative advantage is often expressed as economical profitability, social prestige or other benefits. For most of us, a smartwatch isn’t going to provide us a relative advantage when it comes to keeping time. It’s got to deliver something much more valuable. For example, making payments easier and more secure could represent a relative advantage to credit cards, tickets, pass-cards and smartphones.

Of course there are people out there who will purchase smartwatches based on the personal and emotional jobs to be done. For example: being recognized as a trend setter. And those who find the watches aesthetic beautiful and prestigious (i.e. wearing it as statement of wealth).


The degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters. Compatibility also has an infrastructure component where the new innovation is compatible with existing technologies (i.e. it interoperates and complements existing technologies).

For example, in order for a smartwatch to become a better payment system, the POS and payment terminal systems will have to be built out (now happening), and people will have to become comfortable with using the smartwatch for payments.


The degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and use.

With great design we have come to expect form companies like Apple, I anticipate complexity will be designed out of these devices. But it depends of course on the application.

A payment application, for example should be pretty straight forward. But using a smartwatch for healthcare monitoring is currently too complex. A recent article I read “Wearables Solve a Problem Called December,” suggest that doctors are questioning the value of these monitoring devices.

The issues with healthcare monitoring comes down to what to do with all this data patients are collecting, and what kind of liability does this information represent. For healthcare monitoring to work, the complexity and uncertainty needs to be removed from the system.


The degree to which an innovation may be experienced with on a limited basis. Stated another way: the easier it is to try and quicker the benefit is understood and to dispel uncertainty about the new idea.

It’s pretty easy to try smartwatches out – just go down to your local electronics, phone or Apple store and give it a go. The problem though is that the applications are limited, and may not provide enough relative advantage at this time for the mass market to adopt it.

As applications are added, and prices drop on these devices, people are more likely to buy it to give it a try.


The degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. When people start seeing friends, colleagues, and competitors using smartwatches to get important jobs done, that is when mass adoption will occur.

According to diffusion theory, mass adoption begins once interpersonal networks become activated in spreading subjective evaluations of an innovation from peer to peer in a social system.

Critical mass for adoption is between 10% to 20% of the market. After that point, it is often impossible to stop the further diffusion of a new idea, even if one wished to do so.

Smartwatches will achieve mass adoption when they get important jobs done

No matter how great we think our technology is, if it doesn’t solve an important problem people want solved, nor provides a truly unique value proposition to get the job done better than alternative solutions – the technology will have little chance of being a blockbuster product.

I might some day in the near future, adopt a smart watch. But not until I can understand how it gets an important job done better than how I am getting it done today.

It’s only a matter of time – or is it?


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