Back in September, the pollster Ipsos Mori emailed journalists offering them a free survey on any techie subject.
The results were going to be used for some project of the pollsters, but the proposal didn’t appear to rope you into anything. Indeed, it seemed rude not to take them up on it — real polls are expensive. Plus there was a subject I was burning to put to the public: smartwatches.
This time last year, the Apple Watch had been announced but was not due out until April, which left time for the media and even people such as fashionistas to get overheated about it. The Apple Watch was going to herald a wearable technology onslaught. I was loaned one by Apple in July, and it’s wonderful. I still have it around, and wear it, occasionally. The same with other smartwatches.
And this is the thing. I try a lot of wearable tech, but always tire of it after a while. It gets irritating. A watch that simply tells the time is handy, even if most people do not bother with one these days.
But strapping ever more complex gadgetry to yourself when you don’t have to because of your work, or a hobby, or a disability? Is this what people really want?
The random indications I get, even though Apple insists it is delighted with Watch sales, suggest it’s not going well. In August, I was on a flight next to a young Californian attorney — surely the archetypal customer — who quizzed me on the Watch. “So are you thinking of buying one?” I asked. Her reaction was fierce: “Absolutely not. Who needs more distractions?”
That day, I had been into an Apple store in Los Angeles to buy a new strap (the Watch and I were still in the first flush of love) and was told sotto voce by the assistant about what he claimed was a hair-raising Watch return rate. Maybe he was exaggerating, but it was odd.
I actually know three people who have bought an Apple Watch. One is a pharmacist friend from Manchester in the UK, who was in New York and bought it on a whim, but didn’t seem to know much about it. One is an inveterate Apple fan in Melbourne, who would buy a cow if it came from Cupertino. The third is Jake Dyson, of Dyson, who was wearing one when I interviewed him for this column. He likes it — but he didn’t think Steve Jobs would have released it in its current form.
So, what did my personal Ipsos Mori survey reveal? Well, nothing encouraging for wearable tech evangelists.
The pollsters quizzed 1,017 Britons over the age of 15. They found 66 per cent were aware of smartwatches. Awareness was down to 60 per cent among respondents aged 35 and older, and to 57 per cent among the lowest three social and economic groups.
Only 2 per cent said they owned a smartwatch, down to 1 per cent among those over 35. The poll showed 43 per cent believed people did not need a smartwatch; but that doesn’t mean 57 per cent of people believe you do need one.
Similarly, 24 per cent saw a smartwatch as a gimmick, but that’s not an indication that 76 per cent regard it as a life necessity.
Possibly the glummest news for enthusiasts was that only 6 per cent of the smartwatch-aware were likely to buy one in the next year.
So, unless I’m reading the figures wrongly, enthusiasm for this kind of wearable technology is several degrees below lukewarm. Sure, if I were selling something and 6 per cent of 66 per cent of the UK population said they were likely to buy it, I’d be ecstatic. But saying you’re likely to buy is different from buying.
Interestingly, just after I got these numbers, a survey was announced by a London consumer insight consultancy, Future Foundation, on virtual reality headsets, which I know I talk about here a lot, but bear with me.
A quarter of the 1,581 British people it polled, and 47 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds, said they wanted a VR headset. What is remarkable is that, while plenty of people have seen smartwatches, almost nobody has tried VR. It’s not even something that can be shown on television; you have to experience it to get it.
Yet, just from what people hear, they want it. That suggests a different order of desirability. Some say that, fine as it is, the first Apple Watch will inevitably be the worst it makes.
Does the idea have enough puff in it even to go to an Apple Watch 2? I’m not sure it does.