On Smart Watches

As ever, technology marches on. Just take a look at how things were at the turn of the century compared to now, and then go back even further and contrast with now. Within my own lifetime, a paltry 25 years, consumer technology has gone from clunky CRTs, beige computers dominated by command lines and the internet being a niche oddity to sleek, flat touch screens, silver tablets with intuitive GUIs and the internet dominating modern life from how we talk to how we shop. This process will keep going whether we like it or not, with new things coming out of the woodwork and then its up to us to figure out what to do with them. And one of the latest bits of technology to present itself to us is this weeks subject: The Smart Watch.

For those of you who’ve managed to avoid them, I salute you, but incase you didn’t know a smart watch is the bastard lovechild of a wristwatch (and only wristwatches, curiously, no smart pocket watches) and a modern mobile telephone. Like many recent technological innovations, these devices have been foreshadowed by fiction for decades. From Dick Tracy’s radio watch in the ’40s to John Anderton’s screen-based chronometer in 2002’s Minority Report movie, people have long wanted for watches to do more than just tell time and occasionally the date. Not that watchmakers haven’t tried to smarten up the device, just look at digital watches, radio-set watches, watches that could double up as calculators or flash drives, but none of these quite captured the word “smart” enough.

While wrist mounted mobile phones have existed (YouTuber Stuart Ashens reviewed this one back in 2008), the modern trend has only really kicked off in the last few years, alongside the rise of smartphones. This has, unfortunately, led to something of an identity crisis in relation to the device. Some are positioned entirely as just an accessory to an existing device while a few are being positioned a device in their own right. This compounds the notion that no-one is entirely sure what they are for, least of all their designers. This has turned into a very odd feature creep. The earliest modern smart watch I remember becoming aware of, the Pebble, is a relatively simple device with an e-ink screen and only a few functions, where as recent inventions, as represented by Samsung’s Gear S and Apple’s imaginatively titled Apple Watch, are all singing all dancing devices that can monitor your health, answer your phone and in the case of the former, is a 3G mobile device in its own right. And yet, as far as I can see there is currently no unique selling point for the devices to make people want one.

While I personally like the basic concept behind smart watches, I can’t quite see myself owning one as they exist right now. Part of this reason is the price, while a few hundred pounds isn’t really that extravagant in the luxury watch industry (seriously, go look them up and be shocked) as an accessory to a mobile device it’s somewhat extravagant. The main reason, however, is the features. On the technology side of things, it is indeed impressive that we can now fit all the various things into something that can conveniently on your wrist, the sheer amount of things, most of which I can’t quite see a use for is unnecessary. A big common thread with a lot of recent smart watches has been a big push health monitoring, which seems to be manifesting as both a pedometer and a constant pulse monitor. The former makes sense in my mind as it’s both incredibly simple to achieve and would replace a fairly common fitness gadget that already exists. The pulse monitor, however, strikes me as unnecessary. I personally can’t quite imagine a genuine reason for constantly monitoring your health rate in day to day life outside of ongoing health issues, and in that case I’d probably rather have actual medical equipment involved than a piece of consumer electronic gadgetry. Similarly the barometer that fears on the Apple Watch also strikes me as unnecessary for the same reason, I’d far rather have a proper functional separate device than have it as a random feature on a consumer device.

This sensor creep also has caused another point that has put me off buying into the concept: Battery life. While I fully understand why smart watch batteries are atrocious in comparison to traditional electric watches (your analogue watch does pretty much two things and can run for years off a button cell, whereas a tiny wrist mounted computer requires a little more clout) the general idea that you are required to charge a wristwatch every 1 to 2 days at most is somewhat preposterous. While, as many people have pointed out almost every time this point is raised, this is similar to modern phones, my counter is this: Firstly that is also appalling, but secondly a device that is meant as a utility primarily, and watches traditionally are, having to stop and faff with making sure it works should be kept to a minimum. We have, admittedly, been spoiled by the fact that modern electronic watches are incredibly power efficient, however if we are to adopt smart watches as a logical replacement, they too will have to advance to the point where the efficiency comes at the very least close.

My final bugbear with most current smart watches is not one to do with the technology but a design issue. The vast majority of smart watches are, from an industrial design point, really ugly devices. Between Sony’s “wrist mounted iPod nano” and Samsung’s “Let’s shrink a phone down and curve it around your wrist” I get the impression that most industrial designers involved are trying to fit the phone to the wrist, rather starting with the watch form, which would have seemed more logical to me. At the moment the square format screen seems to dominate, which further suggests the designers are more used to designing larger devices. It’s not all bad, though, some smart watches actually resemble watches of old. Credit where credit is due to Apple, LG and Motorola for all designing smart watches that actually, in my mind at least, resemble the traditional wristwatch form (though admittedly I don’t think Apple’s is one I would wear), proving some designers get the idea. The sooner the rest of the industry catches on the better.

As I said earlier, I am not totally opposed to the concept of smart watches, I just think in these early days they’ve yet to prove themselves. To paraphrase a quote I saw on twitter, I want to live in the age of smart watches without living in the age of developing smart watches. Some of the ideas being bandied around by the kind of people who come up with concepts are fascinating, and the technology is beginning to exist to make them real. One idea I saw mooted that genuinely appealed to me was a navigation aid that rather than try to show you the map on the dinky screen, actually worked like a digital compass and pointed the way to your destination. Stuff like that is moving beyond simply trying to apply smartphone logic to a smaller device and beginning to work within a unique framework, and I would love to see more like that. This was one area where I think Apple’s watch based version of iOS is going to work, since it takes into account that a touch screen that size is not convenient in the slightest and brings back (shock horror!) physical controls as a primary input method.

The idea that the smart watch is an accessory to a more powerful smartphone device is also another one that I think will be the way forward. The core market for smart watches is clearly those people who already have smart phones, therefore it’s a logical step to utilise that common point in a new device. It also allows for a lot of the more intensive software processes to be handed off to the larger, more powerful device, which would presumably greatly improve device power usage and so on. While this does seem to be a growing thing, manufacturers are still determined to make the smart watches be something they are currently woefully adequate for. You would think, given the push to an interconnected future that technology is edging towards, the idea that these two sets of devices worked in digital symbiosis would be a definite selling point. One minor downside that presents itself already is the proprietary compartmentalisation of these devices. Already we’ve seen Android Wear only works with Android and iOS-for-watch only works with iOS, with only really a single device I am aware of capable of working on both (interestingly none exist for Windows Phone yet). For the time being there’s nothing we can do about it, yet I predict if the idea of smart watches is to thrive we’re going to have to press for more multi-platform solutions.

Only time will tell where the smart watch platform will go, and it is indeed early days yet. I can see a point in the near future where they will either change to become a must-have gadget or end up as a curious footnote in technology to be picked up and refined by later generations, much like PDAs being niche until smartphones largely usurped them with the exact same functionality. Maybe someone will come up with some amazing fix for all the problems I’ve outlined in the immediate future, and if that does occur you can count me in. But not until that point. Until next time, folks,
–Likes technology to have a point.


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