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Will These Features Finally Help Smartwatch Sales Take Off?

Sales of smartwatches will more than double over the next five years, according to a new research forecast, but won’t come close to approaching the level of smartphone sales.

Consumers worldwide will buy nearly 44 million smartwatches this year, led by the Apple Watch, with models from Fitbit, Garmin, and Asian manufacturers also showing growth. Shipments will reach nearly 90 million by 2021, according to a new forecast from International Data Corp.

That’s solid growth that will bolster the consumer technology market, but pales in comparison to the nearly 1.5 billion smartphones sold each year. Tech companies once had higher hopes for watches, but the technology has come along slowly. Early smartwatches suffered from bulky designs, short battery life, and a lack of compelling features.

The next five years will see more useful innovations, IDC says, with more watches connecting on their own to wireless networks, being used to control smart devices around the home, and monitoring more complicated health factors. Revamped microprocessors from Qualcomm will also aid some manufacturers to make thinner watches with longer lasting battery life. Qualcomm was recently touting the new processor as allowing for a constantly visible watch screen, unlike the dark displays most models currently show when the user hasn’t raised their wrist just so. Direct wireless connections could make watches less dependent on smartphones, too.

“The smartwatches of 2022, even 2020, will make today’s smartwatches seem quaint,” Ramon Llamas, IDC’s wearables research director, said in the report. “Health and fitness is a strong start, but when you include cellular connectivity, integration with other Internet of Things devices and systems, and how smartwatches can enable greater efficiencies, the smartwatch market is heading for steady growth in the years to come.”

Apple (AAPL) is expected to unveil the fourth generation of its watch later this year, while Fitbit (FIT) has recently released its first hit in the market segment, the $200 Versa. Garmin (GRMN) also just introduced a series of new, more capable smartwatches that start at $700. Beyond those models, other manufacturers are relying on software from Google. Luxury watchmakers have been using Google’s WearOS, while some low-cost Asian makers have been using converted versions of the free Android phone software for their watches.

Google’s (GOOGL) WearOS includes many of the company’s own apps and services, many of which are banned in China. That has prompted some watch makers to use modified versions of Android without the Google apps.

“We anticipate Android-based watches to be WearOS’ closest competitor due to the high amount of customization available to vendors and the lack of Google services in China,” IDC senior research analyst Jitesh Ubrani said.

IDC says some other parts of the smart wearables market will grow even faster than watches, though still remaining relatively small. So-called hearables, or connected headphones and earbuds like Apple’s AirPods, will take off along with clothing that has sensors embedded. Shipments of hearables will reach nearly 13 million units in 2021, six times this year’s sales, IDC said. And smart clothing shipments will more than triple to 11.7 million, the firm predicted.

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