Wristy Business

The first reviews of Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear hit the web on Tuesday. They described an unattractive product that has limited functionality with a high pricetag. This isn’t unique to Samsung’s product; it’s pretty much par for the course for all of the smartwatches out there. No company has produced a compelling watch-like product.

Given that state of the industry, it’s no surprise that smartwatches aren’t taking off as a product category. That the market is young is not, I don’t think, the reason for the lukewarm reception to the current crop of smartwatches. Rather, I think that these products simply haven’t answered any pressing needs or desires. I see two main questions which these have not yet answered.

What’s the Purpose of the Smartwatch?

What makes a watch “smart”? A Breitling equipped with a chronograph and a pressure release valve for diving doesn’t count as “smart”, and neither does a GPS-equipped fitness watch, as far as I can work out. The definition seems nebulous; both of these watches seem pretty smart to me, albeit in differing ways.

The definition from Wikipedia isn’t bad, though it’s still quite broad:

A smartwatch or smart watch, is a computerized wristwatch with functionality that is enhanced beyond timekeeping, and is often comparable to a personal digital assistant (PDA) device. While early models can perform basic tasks, such as calculations, translations, and game-playing, modern smartwatches are effectively wearable computers.

Yet, despite strapping a computer onto your wrist, all of the smartwatches currently on the market seem to be designed as an appendage to a smartphone. They aren’t simply an accessory; rather, they require the smartphone for most of their basic tasks: while you can see a notification on the watch, for example, you must use your phone to interact with it. You can take photos with the Galaxy Gear, but you’d probably prefer to use the higher-quality camera in a smartphone. And, while it is possible to take a phone call on a few of these watches, you’d really be best to use your smartphone for that.

These “smart” watches also struggle to be the “watch” part of “smartwatch”. Because of the power required to keep a display powered on, many of today’s crop of smartwatches require some form of interaction to wake the display. We have regressed to the days of the Pulsar P2.

In other words, the smartwatch is little more than an expensive notification screen. It seems to lack purpose beyond novelty, which doesn’t make for a compelling product.

Do I Feel Like an Idiot While Wearing This Smartwatch?

Or, conversely, “do I feel sophisticated while wearing this smartwatch?”

Watches have always been a combination of a functional object and a fashion accessory. While their function is not irrelevant in 2013, we now have clocks everywhere. Therefore, the importance of the design of the watch has become elevated to a new high. At no point in history has the function of a watch been so superfluous.

You wouldn’t know it if you looked at the current breed of smartwatches, though. Every single one of them looks bulky, cheap, and unrefined. The WIMM One looks like an ankle monitor, while the Pebble is plasticky. The Galaxy Gear may be metallic, but it’s very industrial and brash.

We’ve been here before. Early digital watches — like the Pulsar P2 — caught on more for their novelty than for their good looks. Yes, James Bond wore a few, but that was only during the corny Roger Moore era. A digital watch is chosen purely for functional reasons; they’ve never reached the same level of class or elegance as a decent analog watch.

Smartwatches won’t necessarily have to appeal to horologists, but they can’t be defined by ironic geek chic. Most normal people with even a modicum of fashion sense aren’t going to be interested in that. They need a watch which tells the time, looks great, and does whatever a smartwatch ostensibly can do.

The Plausible Case for Apple

Crazy speculation ahead.

With the launch of the iPhone 5S, Apple also introduced developers to a new “motion coprocessor”, dubbed the M7. It rides alongside the A7 SoC in the 5S controlling things like the compass, accelerometer, and gyroscope. Since it doesn’t have to be preoccupied by doing things like running the operating system, it uses much less power, so it can accept data from these sensors constantly.

When Phil Schiller described the M7 onstage, he was oddly speculative about its potential uses. Usually when Apple brings something new to the table, they have a very precise example of how the innovation will improve your experience with the product. But Schiller simply said this, in regards to the M7:

With new software and applications, you’re going to get a whole new level of health and fitness solutions never before possible on a mobile phone.

We’re updating our CoreMotion API inside iOS 7 to read this data and provide it to applications. And it can characterize and analyze the data to tell applications whether you’re stationary, walking, running, driving, and provide that for you to take applications to make your life more fit and healthy. [sic]

He then showed an example of a Nike app updated to take advantage of the M7, plus the iPhone’s GPS capabilities. It’s nice that the compass and gyro are sending their data to a reduced-power chip — and all of this sounds nearly perfect for a smartwatch — but the GPS chipset still requires crazy power. I don’t have a 5S, but if I use Strava while cycling for a few hours, it’s going to be very close to running out of power.

Luckily, Sony introduced a super low-power GPS receiver earlier this year, which can…

… measure highly accurate positional information by combining information received from multiple sensors built into the smartphone, such as accelerometers, magnetic sensors and gyro sensors.

That sounds familiar. The M7 is an NXP part (specifically, an LPC1800-series), but a future version of the new M-series coprocessors might find Sony’s offering intriguing. It wasn’t used for the M7 because it became available this past summer; accounting for the amount of time required to integrate it into a product, Sony’s receiver likely won’t be showing up in any products until early next year.

Why write all of this? Well, if Apple is indeed working on a smartwatch, I believe it will be a fitness-oriented product which doesn’t require a smartphone, but which can work in conjunction with one. While I see loads of people running with iPhones, I see more running with iPods — the lighter weight and smaller size is appealing to a lot of people. I believe that an iPod Shuffle-sized product which includes either the M7 or Sony’s new GPS receiver would be appealing to a lot of athletes.

I also think that Apple is one of the only — if not the only — technology companies that can produce a smartwatch which is well-designed. There is no other technology company that competes with Apple for both material choices and build quality. For a watch, these qualities are very important.

There’s one last bit of speculation that I feel comfortable mentioning: if Apple is set to release a smartwatch, when would they do it? I think January is a solid bet.

Apple has previously introduced two (possibly three) category-defining products in a January event: the iPhone, in 2007; the iPad, in 2010; and I would also count the MacBook Air, in 2008.1 This is a solid track-record of products which helped reposition entire product categories in Apple’s vision.

The second reason why January makes sense is to capitalize on all those making New Year’s resolutions, of which the perennial most-common is to get fitter.

This is a lot of speculation, granted. I don’t even necessarily think Apple is interested in the smartwatch category. But these are a few dots which I felt could be connected at some point in the future.

  1. While the MacBook Air was an expensive luxury at its launch, it served as the blueprint for the ultrathin and ultralight notebook category. It was also the first production run of the processes which were later used to build the unibody MacBook Pros. ↥︎