Would you pay a subscription to unlock your smartwatch?

Your smartwatch's most important features could be put behind a paywall

TicWatch GTH Pro watch face
(Image credit: Future)

Imagine you've just treated yourself to a shiny new smartwatch. Maybe not something as fancy as the Apple Watch Ultra, but something with all the features you need: an Apple Watch Series 8, perhaps, or a Google Pixel Watch, or a Samsung Galaxy Watch 5. Excited, you scroll through the various built-in apps – and then your watch asks you for money. If you want to unlock everything your device can do, you'll need to pony up some cash.

Far-fetched? Nope. That's what Mobvoi, makers of the affordable Ticwatch smartwatch range, is essentially doing. On Twitter (as spotted by The Verge) it announced the arrival of its latest software update, delivering upgraded sleep tracking features – and their associated price tag. Early birds can unlock the features for $2.99 a month; the normal price is $4.99. If you don't subscribe you won't be able to get the SpO2 data, minimum and maximum heart rate and sleep trend data.

Why are smartwatches offering subscriptions?

It's easy to assume corporate greed and bad faith – which some of the responses to Mobvoi's tweet clearly have done – but it's more complicated than that. The lines between wearables and medical devices are getting very blurry, and medical devices are regulated in a way that normal tech products aren't. Getting regulators' approval is very expensive, and that may leave firms with a choice: charge more up-front for their devices, potentially limiting their sales, or find another way to generate income. Mobvoi seems to have gone for the latter.

The problem in this particular case is the optics. Mobvoi hasn't said anything about the Wear OS 3 upgrade that other manufacturers are upgrading their devices to – TicWatches are among the 4,000-plus devices Google said would be able to get Wear OS 3 by the end of 2022 – and as a result the new subscription-only features are being interpreted by many commenters as seeing existing customers as little more than cash cows.

I'm in two minds about subscriptions: extreme examples such as BMW charging extra to unlock features your car already has, such as heated seats, do feel like blatant cash grabs. But tech products such as smartwatches do add more capabilities over time, and we can't expect manufacturers to add them out of the goodness of their hearts either. Not every wearable maker has the deep pockets of Apple, Samsung or Google, and subscriptions may help smaller firms compete.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com).