On Smartwatches

2015 is the year of the Internet of Things. This is what the tech media and big companies want you to believe. Like 3D TV in 2013. Except this time they’re right. Not because it’s something that they’ve suddenly decided we should buy, but because there are a lot of places that super-functional, internet-connected devices make sense. The wrist, however, isn’t really one of them. So here’s my take on smartwatches, what each manufacturer seems to be thinking and what they should be if they want to be successful.

Smartwatches, what?

Smartwatches are the combination of current gen mobile computing, and the classic wristwatch. For a fantastic history, and good read on smartwatches, I recommend this OSNews article. As usual, Thom nails it with a very detailed history, and what it means to be a watch.

The mobile phone market has, over the last few years, removed the need for a time piece. Many people check their phone for the time, and in places where you’re not sitting behind a PC, or in a room with a wall clock, you probably have your smartphone at hand. While commuting, shopping, dining or just out with friends, you always have your phone with you. The majority of wrist watch consumers use them more as fashion accessories than functional devices. Many of the younger generation have never had a need to wear a wristwatch, and so it doesn’t make much sense any more. The tech industry seems to have decided that the wristwatch just needs a technological upgrade to make it relevant. And they may be correct about that, but they may also be approaching it from a bad angle.

Everyone seems to agree that notifications are a core feature of a smartwatch. Whether it comes through your phone, or via their own data connection, a modern smartwatch seems to be defined by its ability to tell you that you’ve received a message, email or someone liked your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter post. On the surface this does seem like a good idea, but with such limited screen space and input limitations, no one seems to have really made this practical to the point of it making sense.

LG, Motorola and Android Wear in general

Android Wear is Google’s approach to smartwatches and wearables in general. The core is just to show notifications. Developers don’t have to do something for it to work, as all Android apps automatically support it. While this is great, it also means you get too many notifications most of the time. Of course, you can customize this, but most of the information isn’t practical or useful on your wrist. There are also applications for it, including maps w/ navigation, weather, music control, and there is an SDK for developers. Much of what you can do with it, requires pulling out your smartphone, or using voice input. Battery life ranges between 19 hours and 2 days.

Apple

It’s not out yet, so the speculation and hype is huge. My take is that their offering isn’t visually attractive (my opinion but also shared by many), it doesn’t seem easy to use with 15 different ways of interacting with it, and it will be insanely expensive – starting at $349. I think the end result will not be all that different from Android Wear, a mashup between notifications and applications that often require your phone or voice input. Yes, there will probably be a hype curve where big celebrities are wearing one for a year or two, but then something else will take over. Battery life is about 1 day, judging from Tim Cook’s description.

Samsung

Samsung, being Samsung, have gone for an all-in strategy. They have Android Wear devices, Tizen devices and some other weird smartband/fitness devices. At best they match Apple and Android Wear, at worst, they’re bulky, ugly, buggy and only work with one or two of their own phones.

Pebble

Interestingly, they were the first of this modern rush to the smartwatch, and still one of the most highly rated. The Pebble basically does notifications, with a few extra features such as music control. Pebble stands out in a few ways, in that there is no touch input (only real buttons), and they have a black & white E-Ink screen which barely sucks power. The end result is a week of battery life. They’re relatively ugly, although the Pebble Steel, which is a bit more expensive, has made steps to fix that.

Why not?

The big question is, why would I, as a consumer, want a smartwatch. I already have a $300-$600 phone in my pocket which gives me all this information without having another device to charge every day. If it’s just for the fashion statement, all the big watch manufacturers still exist, and we’re seeing them add some simple notification features to their watches, so why not pick up one of those? Sure, the companies selling them want you to want one, but there’s no real practical purpose for them.

The size is an issue. Being so small, not only limits the information you can show, but really hurts your ability to interact with them. People don’t use voice input. It’s a great feature to have for accessibility, and there are some limited cases where it’s practical, but for the most part, people don’t want to speak to their phone, watch or TV. The screen size is also a problem. Smartphone screens grew rapidly, even Apple was forced to acknowledge that the majority of consumers prefer bigger screens. You can’t show enough information on a 47mm (1.8 inch) screen. Sure, it worked 10 years ago, but in 2015, we have 5 inch super computers always within reach. The 1.8inch supercomputer just seems odd.

Because they have to be small to be a watch, they also don’t have room for a great battery. Traditional watch batteries last years or even decades. Smartwatch batteries last hours or days. Why is this an issue? For something to become ubiquitous, the difficulty of consistent usage needs to be as low as possible. If you forget to charge your smartwatch a few times, the chance of it ending up in a drawer increases rapidly. Tablets are starting to suffer a similar fate, many of them end up drained of power in a cupboard or drawer somewhere. The prevalence of the large screened mobile phone has made the barrier of entry for new devices very high.

Where do they make sense?

The arguments for the smartwatch range from the fair “perfect companion to your phone” to the vague “it will be used in ways we can’t imagine right now”. Most of the bulls tend to be very tied to one particular platform, be it iOS or Android ( you never really hear people defending how good Samsung’s Gear series are ). Using vague terms like “it’s a very personal device” doesn’t really justify anything. Where they do make sense is fitness features and light notifications. I have a Fitbit Flex and I often think that if it buzzed when I got a phone notification, that would be enough. What does make it practical is that I only need to charge it once a week, and that is the only time I ever take it off. Being on my wrist all the time means that even when I’m not using it actively, I have no reason to stop using it. The benefit of getting that reporting of my sleep and a little buzz pattern when I am active enough already overcomes the maintenance that I have to do on it. But now we’re not talking smartwatches anymore. We’re talking fitness trackers. And this is where the internet of things makes sense.

A note on price

In general, items don’t become mainstream until they’re cheap. As much as the tech media tends to associate Apple with the smartphone, the reason is because in the US, iPhones are cheap. They come on a contract, you generally don’t pay much up front, and you get an iPhone. The rise of the smartphone market may have been kick started by Apple, but Samsung are probably to thank for their market penetration. When sub $100 smartphones were widely available in developing countries is when they became a huge market. This is why Android has global marketshare dominance and why the Lumia 520 was the best selling Windows Phone device. Currently though, the main smartwatches are going for above $200, something most consumers don’t even feel comfortable paying for their phones. Sure there will probably be a high end luxury market here, and Apple is betting on it, but this is clearly not a general consumer product.

Conclusion

Electronics companies are trying to make new markets. Unfortunately for them, these are markets that the consumer didn’t really ask for. 3D TV was pushed on us by these same companies, and two years later are words that will forever remind us of 2013. The smartphone was coming for a long time, things evolved in that direction and Apple made a breakthrough product. But it’s pervasiveness has destroyed several markets, and no matter how much these companies try to make them reappear, they won’t for long. The smartwatch is not something that most consumers are interested in. There isn’t enough unique functionality to justify a $200+ purchase, that you have to charge on a daily basis. I applaud the internet of things, and look forward to my breadbox, fridge and coffee machine appending items to a shopping list while my thermostat grabs my location and turns up the temperature, and as I walk in the door my lights activate and my speakerbar takes over the music my phone was playing through my wireless earbuds. Once these are all reasonably priced, I can see them invading the home, but the smartwatch doesn’t seem to fit in my painting of the future.

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