Technology

Is it time for the smartwatch?

September 30, 2013
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Is it time for the smartwatch?
The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, featuring a black watch band. Courtesy Samsung

Fanfare over global smartwatch rollouts is heating up, but is the wearable technology really ready for mass adoption?

The smartwatch category of computing has been predicted for some time to be an area of rapid transformation in the way the world experiences computing. Rumors swirled many months ago that Apple has a watch product in the making, and after that, a number of companies across the world went on the record with their intent to bring watch-based computing to the world, as well. The race was on!

The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch and Sony SmartWatch 2 are now upon us.

But is the smartwatch race really just getting started?

Unpacking a 2004 smartwatch

Approximately 10 years ago, Microsoft released smartwatch technology that generated only a moderate amount of buzz. The earlier Microsoft technology, called Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, was envisioned to eventually work with a range of devices, and watches were to be just the starting point. Microsoft announced teammings with various watchmakers and released functioning devices to the market. I was one of the early adopters, ordering one of the watches at first opportunity, even before they hit the market in 2004. As an executive of a rising software consulting company at the time, I pictured that the devices would allow me to forge through my whirlwind routine of meetings with unprecedented precision. I was excited by the James Bond-type power that would be so compactly on my wrist to help me organize my days, embrace priorities and deflect distractions. I hoped to find a new value add in my business life from the new device.

Searching for mobile value

My first let down occurred when I received my watch. The watch was a bit cumbersome, somewhat clunky and — much as I hated to admit it — even a tad odd looking. It certainly wasn't on par with anything I pictured James Bond sporting on his wrist, as he simultaneously reached out for a martini, while organizing his appointments. My second let down occurred when I assessed the true functionality of the device and how it impacted me. One thing the watch could do very well is tell me the current weather. But this techie superpower didn't really give me any business boost, especially since, by 2004, I already had a phone in my pocket that could give me a weather feed, and I could also pretty much figure it out by glancing outside at any given point in time as well.

The other disappointment was the limited communication purpose of the watch. I couldn't talk on the watch, so it couldn't replace my cell phone. But I was excited initially, because my watch could receive messages and pop them up right on my wrist. There was a corresponding website where we could specify my individual watch destination, type in a brief message and it would be delivered to my watch face with near instant speed. For a week or so, I demonstrated this nifty power at various gatherings. I would use my cell phone to call my exec assistant back at the office and ask her to type in a string of text on the website, so I could amaze all those gathered around me as that message materialized in front of us on the watch. The wow power of this demonstration melted away, however, when one day one of my friends observing the demo pointed out the obvious. My assistant could simply just text message me directly on my cell phone in real life if she needed me, rather than bother at all with the website and watch. I had to admit, it was a valid point!

In no time at all, the watch was relegated to my bottom desk drawer, essentially the island of shiny gadgets with no true value add to my busy life, and I soon forgot about it.

Why did the smartwatch fail to help me in my whirlwind business life 10 years ago?

It delivered no true value. I still needed to lug my phone around with me at the time, since the watch couldn't serve the same purpose. And that phone, since I still needed it anyway, was also more convenient for other functions that the overly ambitious watch proposed to serve for me, such as weather and messaging. Furthermore, even the "cool" factor, or in this case "uncool" factor, had impact on my low enthusiasm to usher in a new era of communication.

2013 smartwatches: A tethered technology

A decade later, as a new watch war begins to heat up, these same lessons apply, as we look ahead to predict who will win over the next 12 to 24 months and the category’s eventual relevance to you. In the almost 10 years since my SPOT watch experiment, there have been many tech lifetimes of technology advances in what a watch platform can do. Based on these technology advances, it is reasonable to expect a modern-day smartwatch phone might hit the sweet spot.

The Galaxy Gear smartwatch appears to be a strong technology platform.

It even looks somewhat cool, to me — although my wife may not think so. But based on my past experience, it still seems to have at least one major Achilles heel: the Galaxy Gear smartwatch is designed as a companion to the corresponding phone or tablet, communicating via bluetooth. And as long as a new wearable computing platform like a smartwatch still requires the familiar and powerful mobile phone platform to be at our side as well, the value add that wearable device brings to us is questionable. The revolutionary smartwatch that infuses productivity to our whirlwinds of activity must bring us full features, not limited features of the past SPOT watch and must eliminate the cell phone dependence as well, which is no easy technological feat. And if it looks cool in the process, too, even better.

That day is not here yet, but the time will come, and the old mobile way of interacting will be shaken and stirred. 

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