Technologizer

Smartwatches Are a Great Idea — Except for the ‘Smart’ and ‘Watch’ Parts

The smartest smartwatch might not look or work much like a watch at all.

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Sony

Sony's upcoming Android-powered SmartWatch 2

So help me, I want to be excited about smart watches. I like watches. I like new categories of gadgets. And I believe, instinctively, that there must be some way to build a device you strap to your wrist that has a shot at making life better for hundreds of millions of people.

I’ve got plenty of company: Take a look at this Google Trends chart, which shows how interest in the term “smartwatch” has bounded upwards since 2010.

But whenever I sit down and think about whether smartwatches are ready to become a major tech category–as I did today when reading about Sony’s upcoming SmartWatch 2, arriving in September–I conclude that the category is nowhere near ready to become the next breakout hit. I can’t even confidently say that I think it’ll ever be ready for mass consumption.

Here’s why:

The technology isn’t ready. What you really want is a color screen that stays on and is legible in any lighting, and a battery that lasts and lasts. There’s no way to do that. As TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reports, Sony says that its battery lasts three to four days with “typical” use–and that’s surprisingly good. Even watches with non-backlit monochrome screens, such as those from Pebble and Meta, don’t last all that much longer.

I’m not saying that there’s no market whatsoever for smartwatches with compromised displays and/or iffy battery life. In the tech-savvy Bay Area, I run into people just about every day who own Pebbles and seem reasonably pleased with them. But I don’t see how there can be a PalmPilot or iPod of smartwatches–an industry-defining blockbuster–until someone invents a wonderfully legible, long-life color display technology. (Watches, by definition, need to be readable anywhere, from a sun-drenched beach to a pitch-dark bedroom.)

There are no true killer apps. The PalmPilot let you easily manage your calendar and address book. The first iPod put a thousand songs in your pocket. But it’s not entirely clear what a smartwatch should be, other than an appendage of your smartphone.  And even then, it’s not clear how useful a device with a teensy screen, incapable of displaying more than a few characters at a time, can get.

I’m not saying the situation is hopeless, and I’m not criticizing the Pebbles, Metas and Sonys of the world for releasing watches that aren’t going to make history. Much progress has been made–albeit in fits and starts–in the nine years since Microsoft worked with watch companies such as Fossil and Suunto to build some of the worst gadgets I’ve ever used. I’d love for some startup or big company (mumblemumbleApple) to solve the smartwatch issues that I fear are insolvable.

But perhaps the smartwatches we’ve seen to date–all of which emphasize both the smart and watch aspects of their names–are headed down the wrong road. Wrist-worn fitness gizmos such as Jawbone’s Up are already pretty compelling, and they’re as good as they are in part because they don’t try to give you a fancy screen, apps and other concepts borrowed from PCs, phones, tablets and other existing devices. (In fact, the Up doesn’t have a display, period) With all due respect to Dick Tracy, it may be that the first truly epoch-shifting device you strap to your wrist since the first wristwatch won’t look or work much like a watch at all.

6 comments
movieskinny
movieskinny

It's funny to here people nix the idea of a new watch, when they can't come up with a hundred dollars to even give it a try. It is even more annoying to me to see phone zombies scrambling for their phones in their pockets, backpacks, purses, and the really bad hunt, the car. AND everyone acts like the president is calling them on every call(so sad). I just calmly glance at my watch and no one is the wiser. 

I simply look down at my watch and it tells me that it is a waste of time 90 percent of the time to pull the phone out of its hiding place. The watch notifies me of emails(usually worthless Facebook junk), mindless twittering, texts(more useful), vol/ff/rew/stop/album art for music playing on the phone, If your conversational abilities are terrible, you can always get a talk up on the smart watch(bars?). Obviously the Sony watch does so much more. I only use it for the dozen or so Sony features. You can add a lot more third party apps. You simply tap the watch and any number of watch faces will appear. 

Save up your pocket coins and get one. Twenty years ago when I got my first cell phone for work, people naysayed that  too. Oh who needs a cell phone. Now folks don't even have land line phones anymore!!

kelley
kelley

I really have doubts about a smart watch being successful. I don't were a watch and haven't for years. If I want to check the time I check my phone so why would I need a watch too. So my thoughts are what could they do with a smart watch that would entice me back to wearing a watch.

Seanmyr
Seanmyr

I find it interesting how the author seems to hint that Apple is the one that will probably figure the smart watch out and make it a huge success.  It's certainly possible but I seriously doubt that Apple has the innovation.  I have yet to see one of their products actually have the battery life that they and their fans say they have.  I have an iPod that I bought brand spanking new and from the beginning I was lucky to get more than 2 or 3 hours of music out of it.  I also used to have a macbook pro and it's battery life was just as bad as an older Windows 7 PC I already had at the time (around 2 hours).

So in my personal opinion Apple won't be the solution.  Also I have to agree that the size of the screen on a watch doesn't lend itself to multimedia type things.  I can't stand watching videos on my 4" phone screen so why would I even consider watching a video or even looking at still pictures on a screen that's probably about 2 inches wide at most?

ntsiotinos
ntsiotinos

I agree about battery life. I already have to worry about plugging in my phone, tablet, laptop every night. I couldn't be bothered worrying about a watch as well.

Mu current is a Casio Data Bank with solar power. It never runs out of power and it will not need to change batteries for probably 10+ years. Now that is battery life. Sure the functionality is pretty basic - but if they can get even 10 days battery life - then I would certainly be interested....

MDeibertPhoto
MDeibertPhoto

Wow...not nerdy at all...I'm sure they'll be a hit with the "In" crowd!

JohnWilson
JohnWilson

@Seanmyr You had an iPod that only gave you 2 hours? Lol. I'd say you had the wrong iPod. Give me a break. Those lasted a very long time. And independent battery tests by a lot of reviewers pit MacBooks on the higher end of battery life.