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Does Anyone Really Want a Smartwatch?

Tech companies insist there’s a robust smartwatch market. So where is it?
Smartwatches on display during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Smartwatches on display during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Asking about the state of the smartwatch market makes a big assumption—that there actually is a smartwatch market. This is a much bigger leap than you might think. The category itself is vague: At this point it includes almost anything that attaches to your wrist, has some mix of sensors, and offers some kind of interface. Considering how new it all is, is it any wonder consumer desires and behavior are poorly understood? It’s going to take a lot more than saying there’s a smartwatch market to actually create one.

According to a new report by market researcher Creative Strategies, fewer than 2 million smartwatches have been sold as the category has begun gaining traction over the past few years. Creative Strategies defines a smartwatch narrowly, including only devices that most people would instantly recognize as a wristwatch. (Worldwide sales of digital wristbands of all kinds are in the tens of millions.) But what tech companies are aiming for is much greater: Some 1.2 billion wristwatches are sold every year. If even 10 percent of those billions of watch buyers could be persuaded to buy a smartwatch, that would be tremendous growth.