Smartwatches do make sense -- if you take the right approach

Summary:To understand smartwatches better, I bought a Pebble smartwatch on eBay. Now I know why the Samsung Galaxy Gear is going to be a disaster...

Cut to the chase, this thing by Samsung is not how you build a smartwatch:

Galaxy Gear
Samsung Galaxy Gear -- ridiculous battery life, massive, ugly, complicated. Breathtaking in just how far it misses the potential of a smartwatch...

Well, OK, it is literally a smartwatch -- it's probably not fair to say "that's not how you build a smartwatch" because they demonstrably have. But would you buy it? Even if you would, do you think you might be an outlier?

Everyone's talking about smartwatches. Everyone wants Apple to do one , Sony are doing (another) oneLG are doing one.

I needed to get a handle on these things, so I bought a Pebble smartwatch on eBay for £150 ($225).

Having used it for a few days, there is potential for a device like this, but I wouldn't hold out hope for anyone ever building one that people want.

Prototype

I didn't buy a Pebble at the time because a) I've been burned five out of the five times I've used Kickstarter, and b) I was pretty sure it would be rubbish.

It's not rubbish. It is actually pretty good. It's ugly as sin though -- it's not jewellery by any means. It looks something like the government would force me to wear so that the drones can get a better target lock.

Where it works for me -- and I mean really works -- is in its basic function of surfacing notifications from my smartphone when I'm doing something else. I could be walking the dog get an email and said email pops up on my wrist. Or I could be in a meeting and get a Twitter message about something important pop-up.

For me, that scratches a real itch and I'm going to go out on a limb here (no pun) and say that there is a vast market out there for this. And it's not technologista geeks like me (and perhaps you) -- it's that chunk of the world that's really into their digital lives. It's people who are young.

Think someone between 10 and 20 here. That sort of young.

Social

Those people who regularly read my stuff will know that I'm really into "post-PC". But post-PC isn't about "death of the PC" or "oooh, I love my iPad". Post-PC is a new wave of computing that is relationship-centric. People -- normal, non-technologists who don't care about computers per se -- flock to smartphones, tablets, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc because it keeps them more readily connected to the people and the things that they love.

Taken together, this is something that I call "digital life". It involves digital social networking hardware and services, together with things like maybe not buying so many CDs because you have Spotify. Or never printing photos because you put them on Flickr.

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Digital life only works because it's built around the idea of  ubiquitous computing  ("ubicomp"). The idea with ubicomp is that the devices you use to enjoy your digital life are always around you, but they do notbecome your life. They are rarely the primary thing you do. For example, you might be out at the shops waiting in line with the kids. You take your smartphone out, check Facebook, and put it back into your pocket. The primary thing you are doing is looking after the kids. You're dipping into your digital life by way of a distraction, as a secondary activity.

What notifications on a smartwatch do is lessen that distance. Rather than having to think "I wonder if anything's happened on Facebook", you just instantly know.

That might not be such a big thing, but if your digital life is interwoven into your identity, that is a huge thing.

This is why I'm suggesting that very young people are a good target market for this, because of how they generally don't separate their digital and real-life experiences. You're not trying to hit some mid-40s exec in a meeting with a calendar notification. You're trying to hit some young lad in a club on a 3am on a Saturday with a Facebook message from a girl he likes.

That latter sort of person has spent their whole adolescence steeped in the day-to-day relevance of digital life. Kids that don't go out in the evening but spend their lives on Facebook, Tumblr, etc are being more efficiently social than we ever were.

To put it another way -- admittedly generalising that my readership are typically older than 20 -- that generation feel less of a distinction between "digital life" and "real life" than we do. They're more equal, more the same.

Having to a check a smartphone for notifications is suboptimal if you do feel your digital and real lives are interwoven and equivalent. If you're such a person, you want something closer to having an implant in your brain hooked up to the cloud. Pebble is a step in the right direction. Other smartwatches could be.

Inbound failures

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Now prepare for the failures, because what the electronics firms are coming up with doesn't gel with any of that.

What the electronics firms are hearing is, "people want a small smartwatch that does on their wrist". Uh-uh. No.

People don't need apps on their watches. They don't need cameras either. They don't need colour screens, mics, or speakers. They just need a readout and a Bluetooth connection to the smartphone. The smartwatch doesn't need more than this, because only the only thing you need to do is to improve efficiency in how the user accesses their social network. That's the itch you need to scratch. They already have a smartphone with email, GPS, camera, apps, games, etc.

It's just a shame that there is zero chance any corporate entity is going to understand that and actually build something that hits the right market. Prepare for a year of rubbish like Galaxy Gear being thrown at the market that no one wants.

Of course, we could always make our own. Kickstarter, anyone?

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Mobility

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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