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'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.