Though it (arguably) might come in last place at the Innovative Smartwatch Naming Awards, LG’s Watch W7 – announced earlier this week – did attempt to do something novel. By marrying physical fingers with a digital display, the Watch W7 was intended to be the power couple that ties together the best of the digital world and delivers it to the wrists of analogue enthusiasts.

Instead, the Watch W7 has been much maligned for its design – and for the fact that users would need to press a side-mounted button to level the fingers to see the display in the first place.

All that being said and done, I feel the Watch W7 is a punctuation point for the consumer technology industry – a note for future reference telling us that, well, perhaps we haven’t quite figured out what we want from smartwatches just yet.

Globally, smartwatch sales have ramped up over the past few years – and while Apple (unsurprisingly) might own the lion’s share of the market thanks to the Apple Watch Series 1 through 4, we’ve arguably yet to see a smartwatch product harness the same brand power that many major smartphones do.

That’s a surprising statement to make. Throwing it back to 2014, the stage seemed set for a massive showdown in the smartwatch world – with the likes of the Apple Watch set to tackle the Android hordes (perhaps most recognizably led by the Moto 360 at the time.)

While an estimated figure of 141 million smartwatch sales might sound like we’re heading north, comparing that against a reported 1536 million smartphone sales indicates that we haven’t yet seen a breakout product (or suite of products) that can do for our wrist what our phones do for our pockets.

A lack of utility

Personally, I don’t wear a watch – whether it be analog or smart. I’ve grown used to checking the time (when need be) on my phone, and I personally don’t have much need nor want for jewelry.

However, the fact that we don’t yet have a wrist-worn product that is indispensable is telling. Chiefly, smartwatches today focus on two major aspects – fitness tracking or serving up notifications – and those are two functions that have been best served by two completely different products.

Smartwatches exist in the awkward space of being an accessory, and not a necessity. While Google’s Wear OS and Apple’s watchOS have both introduced interesting features, neither has truly focused on delivering utility – that is, a slate of features that exist in isolation and can’t be replicated elsewhere.

The challenge here is that few have dared to re-envision just what a watch is.

Expense versus affordability

While some manufacturers have paired smartphones and smartwatches together at sale, in most cases smartwatches are just too expensive. In a luxury market where premium brands shift double digits on design and material value alone, the most notable failure in this space was (arguably) the original Apple Watch Edition – a gold behemoth that failed to tow its weight $10,000 USD price tag.

In emerging markets, the budget through mid-range is a major arena for even the biggest brands – and this is an area which we have yet to see smartwatches meaningfully compete in. While there are certainly affordable smartwatches, few exist with the backing of sizable brand-power and, at worst, offer a lackluster delivery of some basic features.

Smartwatches, chiefly, have been obliterated at the bottom end by another noteworthy challenger…

Fitness trackers

While many major consumer technology brands have committed to offering a smartwatch, few have been able to resist the allure of fitness trackers – which are far more affordable to produce, sell, and ultimately market.

The awkward factor is that consumers have flocked to purchase fitness trackers themselves at the expense of smartwatches – with global sales of the former edging closer to 200 million per year.

Given their affordability, smaller form factor, and the uptake in major insurance services leveraging them for monitoring purposes, fitness trackers have – for better or worse – become the backbone of the smartwatch realm. Unfortunately, in this case, that backbone fails to support a wider industry, and excels in capturing consumers for years before they’re ready to make a sizeable upgrade to a new product.

Design

It’s time to point out (perhaps) the biggest factor crippling the smartwatch industry – no one’s carved out a great design.

Sure, the likes of premium brands such as Tissot have cultivated connected offerings, and the Apple Watch Series 4 might be beautiful thanks to its larger screen – but have any of these products truly offered style and substance?

LG’s Watch W7 is perhaps a glaring declaration that, frankly, we haven’t quite figured out what we want from smartwatches. Should we adopt always-on displays? Are mechanical fingers needed? Can any smartwatch truly survive with a massive profile on anyone’s wrist?

Until smartwatches themselves are both slimmer and more svelte, we may struggle to surpass the sexy profile of a fitness tracker.

So, what do we really need for smartwatches to take off?

It might sound contrived, but smartwatches need their iPhone moment.

While smartphones existed before the iPhone, it wasn’t until Apple demoed its take that we developed, iterated, and proliferated a worldwide industry that is growing until this day – and while Apple may not be the company to do so, we await a firm that can radically envision what a smartwatch can do.

The game might be simple. A great smartwatch would need a simple focus, an elegant use case, a slim design, and an appealing price tag – and perhaps most bizzarely, it might have little to do with telling the time.

Some interesting projects linger on. Lenovo is pushing ahead with form-shifting wearable technology, while other firms such as LG continue to trial rollable OLED technology. The right product might lie on the horizon, but we arguably haven’t seen it just yet.