By Robert McGarvey
The short answer is: No, the typical credit union does not need to be in a rush to deploy an Apple Watch app. Or any other smartwatch. Some should at least look hard into a possible rollout of an app.
But most can sit safely on the sidelines.
The timing is right for a fresh look at smartwatches and banking. We are now at the two-year mark since Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the Apple Watch and, at the start, optimism was high for the device and expectations were large that many of us soon would be buying stuff with a tap on a smartwatch, checking our balances on it, and maybe even paying bills with it. In those heady days, it often seemed that the Apple Watch was primed to revolutionize commerce and banking.
How has that worked out?
Understand that the Apple Watch has sold many millions of units. Apple has never released sales figures for the device but experts say that the watch is a billion-dollar product. But experts also say that sales have flattened—some say sales have in fact fallen —and while we don’t know the specifics, we do know that Apple Watch—and the Android smartwatches—really haven’t set the world aflame. There are fans, there are millions of happy users, but this is no iPhone. It has not birthed a wholly new must-have device category.
In 2009, two years after the iPhone launch, old-fashioned feature phones had started to look dated and dumb. Nowadays, when I look around, I just don’t see many watches at all. It’s not that smartwatches have won out, or that traditional watches are triumphing; it’s that a lot of wrists are bare.
And that’s why most financial institutions can breathe easily and put smartwatch apps on the backburner.
Watch apps, generally, also offer a small, edited suite of functions, such as finding an ATM, balance-checking, and pinpointing the nearest branch. The trend with mobile banking apps is to make them ever more robust, but that’s just not the case with a smartwatch where the limited screen real estate and the challenge of data entry mean that a watch app just will never rival a mobile banking app.
Then too, for full functionality the Apple Watch requires a nearby iPhone—and if an iPhone is near, who wouldn’t rather use it to handle complex banking tasks?
Add it up and we have skepticism about just how important smartwatches are likely to be in banking.
For some years our consistent advice regarding financial institutions and technology is: You need it. Get it soon.
That’s not what we are saying about smartwatches.
Definitely some institutions have Apple Watch apps—just about all the leading banks do, and a smattering of credit unions do too—but there are reasons to go slow. The biggest reason: For now, the primary use of smartwatches appears to be fitness-related (step counting, for instance). Although at least some users do monitor Apple Pay charges on their Apple Watch, no special financial institution app is required for that—Apple Pay alone should do the notification.
Our advice is blunt: get your mobile banking act in gear. That, clearly, is the future of banking for most institutions. So put real focus into mobile banking.
And go slowly with smartwatches.
There really is no reason to rush.