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The cellular-enabled smartwatch (with a set of Bluetooth headphones) allows consumers to leave their smartphone at home but still enjoy a smartphone-lite experience. Although not a current reality for most wearable consumers, cellular-capable smartwatches will continue to roll out over the next few years: Ovum projects that 25% of wearables sold will be cellular-enabled by 2022. By then, autonomous wearable use (without a smartphone) will take up at least 10% of consumers' sole mobile device usage time. This represents an intriguing opportunity from both a wearable services and data usage perspective.

The key differentiator between smartphones and wearables is the active mobile engagement (e.g., web and social media browsing, video watching) that the large screen of a phone facilitates compared to the passive mobile engagement enabled by wearables (e.g., responding to calls and texts via a digital assistant, using only essential convenience apps such as for rideshares or payments). But smartwatches will shift from supplementary mobile device to complementary device and will start to take a larger share of users' mobile time. Many consumers will find the wearable device a powerful mobile alternative for out-of-the-house activities that don't need much mobile engagement.

As seen in Figure 1, 68% of respondents in Ovum's Digital Consumer Insights 2018: Consumer Devices survey use their smartwatch every day or day and night and 82% use it at least a few times a week, signaling high engagement. As cellular-enabled wearable use cases continue to expand, device engagement and consumer dependence will only increase.


Figure 1: How often do you use your smartwatch or wearable device other than as a watch?

How often do you use your smartwatch or wearable device other than as a watch

Source: Ovum


Ovum's Digital Consumer Insights 2017: Smart Living survey identified monitoring health status and fitness activity, playing music, messaging, taking pictures or videos, and social networking as some of the most popular features on wearables. This indicates that most wearable users are not heavy users of data. As autonomous wearable feature sets evolve, however, a variety of apps and services will push power users to adopt larger wearable data plans.

The salient smartwatch use case for the cellular-enabled, leave-your-phone-at-home wearable experience is fitness, but cellular-based feature options will eventually expand to create a more holistic smartphone-lite user experience. With this, consumer perceptions regarding features that are most essential to the wearable experience will also evolve to include cellular-based experiences – a simple current example being NFC payment capabilities without a smartphone.

Social networking was a feature that respondents reported as not widely available on devices. Apple has tested the waters with social-focused features such as seven-day fitness challenges users can do with friends. Social networking customized for wearables will be a widespread reality on smartwatches by 2020, possibly even leveraging health and fitness data through interactive social notifications whereby users can share that they've met their weekly nutrition goals or have been for a run, for example. Data usage will increase as more apps connect with a wearable-focused social media platform.

One of the many clear advantages of smartphones is how easily consumers can view video compared to on wearable screens. Long-from video-watching, however, is an activity many consumers are likely to do at home. Much of the video consumed out of the house will be shorter, and smartwatches such as the Apple Watch allow users to view shorter video clips in a reasonably digestible way. Even consumers who are deterred by other implications of the smaller wearable screen – who favor the active smartphone mobile experience of browsing social media and watching videos when out of the house for long periods of time – can derive value from passive wearable experiences for shorter engagements (e.g., visiting the grocery store, taking the dog for a walk).

We are a way off from smartwatches becoming a key standalone device to fulfill consumers' mobile needs, but we are seeing the foundations of a powerful and productive autonomous wearable ecosystem.

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