iWatch: The real problem isn't the technology - it's bigger than that

Summary:Technology has matured to the point where smartwatches have become viable - but that's not the only obstacle in the way.

If the rumours that surfaced recently are correct, Microsoft, Samsung and Apple all have smartwatches in the works, developing connected timepieces that will bring smartphone-type functions to consumers' wrists.

It's not as new a concept as you might think: smartphone manufacturers are always working on smartwatches and have always done so, but more in hope than expectation.

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

The concept of the smartwatch intrigues tech companies because it's such an obvious extension of what they already offer. (Of course, they're always working on plenty of other strange prototypes that may or may not one day undergo the alchemy that transmutes them from vapourware into solid product). 

Despite the attempts of many big name technology vendors over more than a decade to produce a smartwatch that people might actually want to buy, the devices that actually hit the market have received a pretty dismal reception (check out our gallery on the history of smartwatches for more).

The technology behind those timepieces is largely to blame for that: while over the last few decades the watch may have gone digital, it has resolutely failed to become smart.

Apple's long-rumoured iWatch plan could change that. The success of the iPad shows that Apple can take on a concept — the tablet form factor — that other companies had worked on but failed to perfect, and make it a winner.

As in tablets, in smartwatches it was Microsoft that made a lot of the early running with its Spot line, meeting a similar level of success with its watches as it has more recently done with its slate. Now Microsoft is rumoured to be working on a smartwatch again - shades of the iPad versus Surface tussle anybody?

Still, for an at-best nascent and possibly non-existent market, analysts are already throwing around some big numbers. Gartner sees smartwatches as part of a $10bn wearable computing industry. "CIOs must evaluate how the data from wearable electronics can be used to improve worker productivity, asset tracking and workflow. Wearable electronics will also provide more-detailed information to retailers for targeting advertisements and promotions," it said recently. Another analyst says the smartwatch alone is a $6bn market , potentially a bigger opportunity for Apple than TV, another area of technology it's been long-rumoured to be getting into.

However, right now, the market for smartwatches is tiny, and it's fragmented.

The success of the Pebble Kickstarter project (which secured $10m after asking for a mere $100,000) suggests there is pent-up demand for such devices though, and where the Kickstarter technorati lead, the mass market tend to follow.

Terrible battery life, arm-deadening weight, deeply uncool designs and horrendous user interfaces were just some of the many reasons that the first few generations of smartwatches were dead on arrival. Fixing all these extinction-level problems for these types of devices is now possible: technology has advanced to the point where most of these headaches can be solved (at least to a certain extent) so the biggest hurdle in the way of the iWatch and its rivals is that nobody can really explain why a smartwatch is actually a good idea.

The smartwatch remains a device in search of a purpose. What can an object with a tiny screen, limited battery and little processing power do that the smartphone in your pocket can't?

One analyst told the Wall Street Journal that demand for wearable devices such as smartwatches was growing because smartphones are becoming too big to carry. Such a theory sounds odd but there may be a certain amount of sense, thanks to the phablet becoming a standard smartphone size.

Still, as a form factor, the smartwatch still intrigues. Perhaps the smallest screen, the watch, will become the most premium real estate – the screen where only the truly essential updates are displayed, and not every piece of Facebook fancy or Twitter litter will be presented.

And while we may spend most of our waking hours with a smartphone, a watch has an even closer, physical connection. Having a device attached to you at all times also adds new possibilities, especially around health monitoring. Devices such as the Fitbit and the Nike+ Fuelband have shown there is a market among the more sporty at least, and it's easy to see how smartwatches can incorporate this sort of tracking into its suite of apps.

Thanks to the near ubiquity of clocks (particularly the virtual kind on our phone screens) we no longer need watches to tell the time. As a result, among the few who still wear watches at all, they're considered jewellery rather than functional devices. And we don't replace our jewellery on a two year cycle as we do with mobile phones — it's common for jewellery to worn for period of years, even passed onto our children. Passing on a wearable iPod nano to your offspring? Unlikely.

That leaves hardware makers with two equally undesirable scenarios: consumers buy the devices, but don't upgrade them, or they consider them wrist jewellery — a market that the mobile phone, ironically, killed off some time ago. To kickstart the connected watch market, tech vendors will have to find some way to convince shoppers that they not only need a piece jewellery that they abandoned years ago, but that they should get used to upgrading it on a regular basis, as they do with their technology. Not an easy task.

So, for those companies steeling themselves for an entry or return to the smartwatch market, getting the technology right may not be the biggest problem. The greatest challenge will be getting us not to think of them as technology in the first place.

Topics: Hardware, Smartphones

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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