Today just might be the most eventful day in the history of the not-yet-popular gizmo known as the smartwatch. At Berlin’s IFA show, Samsung showed off its Galaxy Gear watch. And 6,000 miles away in San Diego, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs is unveiling the company’s first smartwatch at its Uplinq conference.
Wait, a Qualcomm smartwatch? The company is a giant when it comes to the chips that go inside smartphones and other mobile devices, but it doesn’t normally make consumer devices. Its watch, Toq, is an experiment: a device Qualcomm hopes to offer to early-adopting geeks in small quantities to help prove there’s a smartwatch market at all.
One of the biggest challenges for any smartwatch is the display. How do you design one in that’s attractive and legible and doesn’t drain the battery in hours? The most notable thing about Toq is its solution to that conundrum: It uses Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology.
Mirasol does color, can work with or without illumination and requires very little power, rather like the monochrome E Ink displays on products such as Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite. I’ve been impressed with the tech since I first saw it in 2010, but it’s never been used in a high-profile, mass-market consumer device. I’d gotten worried that it might stay in limbo forever. But its virtues seem like a good fit for the smartwatch category, assuming it takes off.
The Toq’s screen is easy to read in decent light without illumination, but in dimmer environments you can turn on a light. It conserves additional power by working in two modes: There’s a touch-sensitive strip below the display, but you can also go into a full touch-screen mode.
I haven’t seen a single smartwatch yet that I’d describe as slim and elegant, but Qualcomm has done a respectable job of keeping the Toq from being too completely ungainly. After seeing the Toq in person, I can tell you that it’s large but not too chunky.
The battery is cleverly built into the clasp, and it uses Qualcomm’s WiPower technology to charge wirelessly when you drop it on a recharging pad. Qualcomm says it should run for around five days on a charge — which, by 2013 smartwatch standards, is impressive.
So what can you do with the Toq? Like the Galaxy Gear and most other current smartwatches, it’s less of an autonomous gadget than a satellite station for your smartphone, which it tethers to wirelessly. (At first, it will work with Android phones, though Qualcomm says that the iPhone is a future possibility.) You can read text messages, send canned replies and use widgets for quick hits of information such as weather and stock prices. Qualcomm will allow third-party developers to build applets for it as well; they can use AllJoyn, another Qualcomm technology designed to let devices such as phones and watches communicate directly with each other.
Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm Internet Services, told me that the company plans to start selling Toq in the fourth quarter of this year. The price hasn’t been set yet, but it may be in the neighborhood of $300 to $350. Chandhok says that Qualcomm will be happy if total sales are in the tens of thousands of units — what it really wants to do is to work with big consumer-electronics companies to build watches based on the basic Toq design.
Seems to me that the company is smart to set expectations low. I still haven’t seen any take on the smartwatch that leaves me confident it’s a concept with mass appeal on the same scale as the MP3 player, smartphone or tablet. But devices such as Toq might help it get there. And if nothing else, I’d be happy to see a technology as cool as Mirasol find useful life in Toq and other smartwatches like it.