The smartwatch: Tomorrow's must-have gear or a waste of time?

Summary:With smartwatches wrangling for the spotlight at next week's Mobile World Congress, our debaters consider the prospects for this wearable technology.

Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller

Must-have gear

or

Waste of time

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Best Argument: Must-have gear

19%
81%

Audience Favored: Waste of time (81%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Compelling cases

Matthew Miller: I started using smartwatches ten years ago with MSN Direct-powered SPOT technology devices. Microsoft was ahead of its time when you look at what companies are now providing a decade later. Technology has advanced over the last ten years and we are seeing some compelling cases for using a smartwatch.

Pebble launched as a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 and I was an early backer. I think they have the right mix of notifications and applications and have a growing support community. Samsung's Galaxy Gear is a fine piece of jewelry, but goes a bit too far with its integrated camera and poor battery life.

As I look around and see more and more people with their face planted in a smartphone, I am convinced that it is time for people to look up and interact with others and I think smartwatches can help make that happen. One of the main functions of my Pebble is to triage incoming information and reduce non-vital distractions, and people have commented that I am spending a bit less time with my phone in my hand.

Novelty items

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: For me, smartwatches conjure up childhood memories of Dick Tracy, James Bond and Joe-90. The smartwatch was the ultimate do-anything gadget. You could use it to communicate with your team, test the air quality, and even fire a laser beam out of it if the going got tough.

But that's all make believe.

The reality as it stands in 2014 is that smartwatches are little more than an accessory for a smartphone. A little wrist-mounted screen that lets you do a small subset of what the smartphone in your pocket can do.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with smartwatches. Manufacturers see them as nothing more than a companion device for post-PC devices, rather than thinking outside the box and coming up with cool innovative ideas for what a wrist-mounted computer could be capable of.

Right now, they are little more than novelty items.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome back

    If you weren't on time for the live portion of this week's debate, a smartwatch could be the gadget for you. Everybody ready?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    I'm on time

    How about you, Adrian?

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Clock's ticking

    And the alarm's going off - on my smartphone.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are smartwatches ready for action?

    With Mobile World Congress kicking off next week rest assured there will be a lot of smartwatch talk. How early is it in the smart watchgame?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Nothing new

    While Microsoft and Palm made smartwatches ten years ago, the modern era really didn't
    start up until last year, with little real success. We are still very early in the smartwatch game as manufacturers figure out the proper balance in functionality, battery life, and price.

    There isn't much innovation in the basic design, a small display with a band that goes around your wrist, but there is a lot to consider when manufacturers look at how these watches function.

    I think we will see an updated Samsung Galaxy Gear and maybe something more from Sony and LG. HTC may be entering the market in late 2014, but their wearable devices could also be an activity tracker.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    It's the early days

    Since there aren't any mainstream smartwatches as of yet, it's early days, although as we saw with both the iPhone and iPad, things can change rapidly and the market can close up in the blink of an eye.

    There's been considerable buzz surrounding smartwatches as of late, and it's hard to believe that this won't result in a raft of products hitting the market, but there are no guarantees. Even Pebble, with all the hype surrounding the product, has only shifted a couple of hundred thousand units – a drop in the ocean.

    If compelling products don't come to market – and as of yet I can't see anything fitting that category on the horizon – or if they fail to capture the hearts and minds (and pockets) of consumers, then the while thing might evaporate, leaving nothing to show for all the hullabaloo.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why would you want one?

    What use cases make the most sense for a smartwatch?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's a smartphone attachment

    I was a Kickstarter backer for the Pebble and have tested out the Galaxy Gear. In my opinion, having a watch that acts as a companion to your smartphone is the best approach. I don't believe in some of the smartwatch projects that have the watch acting as a complete stand-alone mobile device with GPS, a SIM card, tiny keyboards, and more.

    I find the Pebble to be a great way to triage calls, messages, and email and think having a watch that helps you perform some basic functions without having to pick up your phone is great.

    Samsung went a bit overboard with the camera and ability to carry on a phone conversation through your watch.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Needs a purpose

    Right now, most manufacturers seem to be looking at the smartwatch as a second screen for the smartphone, a place to display text messages, contact details, and caller information.

    The problem with this is that it works against the principle of convergence that has led to the smartphone taking over the role of a number of separate devices. The thinking seems to be that while people might not want to carry with them a phone, GPS receiver, camera, flashlight, rolodex, and so on, people won't mind carrying a smartphone and a smartwatch.

    What I think it is going to take for the smartwatch to take off is out of the box thinking. The industry needs to come up with compelling things that a smartwatch can do, not just use it to duplicate a subset of the functions a smartwatch can do.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are they really smart?

    Can a smartwatch really be smart if it needs a smartphone for most of its computing and
    connectivity?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Yes, but not smart enough

    Yes, serving as an extension of your smartphone can be very useful. There is intelligence that can be built into the software that connects to your watch and having something that lasts a week and keeps you from focusing on your smartphone display is indeed smart.

    I don't think today's technology supports having a smartwatch that functions as a stand-alone device. As voice technology continues to improve then I may be convinced that a smartwatch can stand alone, but we are not there yet.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    No, they're lame

    While there's nothing wrong with a smartwatch leveraging a smartphone, if all it ever managed to be is a second smaller screen for a phone, then it is a pretty lame device.

    And lame devices have a notoriously high failure rate.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Who can make them tick?

    Which technology vendors do you see as critical to popularizing the smartwatch?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Apple or Google

    Pebble jumped out front with its successful Kickstarter project and iterated with a nicer piece of hardware in the Pebble Steel. Sony was early to launch a smartwatch and has a solid product in its Smartwatch 2. Samsung will likely offer a refined Galaxy Gear this year and that has me excited since I loved the hardware on their first generation model.

    I am also excited about the prospects for an Apple iWatch and Google Now watch, but those are both still in the rumor phase so I am not sure we will see them until late 2014.

    Even though Pebble and the Galaxy Gear saw some modest adoption in 2013, I think Apple or Google launching a smartwatch changes things and will be important to the success of this form factor.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Apple

    I think if there's one company that can make smartwatches work it is Apple.

    This is the company that took MP3 players and made them mainstream with the iPod, took smartphones out of the niche category and made them things that people lusted over, and took Bill Gates' vision of a tablet and made it work.

    Another company that might be able to make the smartwatch work is Google. This could tie the smartwatch deeply to the Android ecosystem rather than let the individual manufacturers create a bunch of incompatible hardware.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Survival of the biggest?

    If Samsung, LG, Apple and other major electronics players go smartwatch happy what's the role for a company like Pebble?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Pebble could slay the giants

    So far, Samsung's Galaxy Gear is limited to Samsung devices and it is highly likely that the Apple watch will be limited to just Apple products. Many consumers today have a mix and match of smartphones and tablets so a company like Pebble can address those cross platform needs.

    Pebble can also innovate quickly when they are not tied to smartphone or tablet hardware
    and from what we have seen so far they have a growing developer base that appreciates a single platform to reach as many smartphone users as possible.

    Pebble was also early into the game and has learned a lot over the last year. Their experience should help them as others just start to figure out how to balance a smatchwatch with a smartphone.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    The OS will be key

    Pebble operates in both the iOS and Android ecosystem, so Apple entry into the market would only have an effect on part of its business. That said, we don't know just how Pebble relies on the iPhone, so it could be catastrophic.

    As for other Android players coming out with a smartwatch, I suppose it all depends on traction. In my opinion the only Android manufacturer with a marge enough user base of devices is Samsung, and so far its Gear smartwatch is hardly generating queues at stores.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The best?

    What's the best smartwatch today and why?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Pebble Steel

    The Pebble Steel is the best smartwatch today. It has a rather lengthy 5-7 day battery life, now has solid hardware, and has an operating system that supports third party apps. Notifications can be completely customized by the user so they have full control over what is and what isn't sent to the watch.

    Pebble has a growing pool of developers and a dedicated appstore that is also seeing growth in available applications.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Pebble Steel by default

    Despite having bad-mouthed it several times already, I think the Pebble is the best so far. It has some nifty features and quite an active development community.

    However, given that the Pebble Steel is little more than old technology in a new shell, perhaps the creative well has run dry there too.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ready for the mainstream?

    Is that smartwatch good enough to entice the masses? After all, the two of you are
    complete gearheads.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's cool

    I've actually been pleasantly surprised while wearing the Pebble and the Galaxy Gear out and about with regular people asking me about the watches. My soccer team, comprised of 14 year old girls, always asked about my Pebble and thought it was the coolest thing ever.

    I see more and more people wearing watches today, likely more as a fashion statement than for watch functionality. Thus, if a smartwatch can be fashionable and functional then I do think it can entice the masses. The watch also has to be reasonably priced though and a couple, Galaxy Gear and Toq, were way overpriced to attract the masses.

    I see more and more people wearing watches today, likely more as a fashion statement than for watch functionality. Thus, if a smartwatch can be fashionable and functional then I do think it can entice the masses. The watch also has to be reasonably priced though and a couple, Galaxy Gear and Toq, were way overpriced to attract the masses.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    It's not a big catch

    It raised $10 million from 70,000 people, and has since shipped around 200,000 units. Hardly mainstream, but not bad for a Kickstarter campaign.

    But when you consider that there are some 1.5 million Android device activations daily, 200,000 is a small drop in a massive ocean.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are they sexy?

    How important is fashion to the smartwatch market?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's the key

    As I stated in my last answer, I think more people are wearing watches today for fashion reasons so I do think it is important for vendors to consider this when making smart watches. If Apple gets into the smartwatch game then I think we will see one of the best designed watches hit the market. Apple makes fantastic hardware that is functional and very fashionable.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    They're ugly

    Maybe, maybe not.

    On the one hand if you want people to wear the watch all the time, then it has to be appropriate for a whole range of occasions. But on the other, more and more people are wearing fitness wristbands – such as the FitBit or Up – and these are about as far from stylish and fashionable as a product can get (at least they are in my opinion), so maybe people are learning to put functionality ahead of style.

    Also, the current crop of smartwatches all look to me like they've fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, so there's certainly room to inject some style into the devices.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Killer app?

    What's the killer app for a smartwatch?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Talking watches

    At this time, the killer app for me is simply call and message notifications. I use this all the time to triage incoming calls and messages while leaving my phone in my bag, pocket, or on my desk. I know this only saves me a few seconds, but also helps make me a bit more "friendly" to people since I can just glance at my watch rather than pull out my phone to see a message that didn't really need my immediate action.

    I am also a fan of life activity trackers and would love to see the ability for my smartwatch to serve as a Fitbit or UP to remove one device from my wrist.

    However, I am also not willing to trade off significant battery life for this functionality so there is that to consider. I think Google Now or Siri could be the killer app on a Google or Apple watch though.

    Hands-free voice control to perform quick searches, ask about the weather, perform basic calculations, and more could be awesome on a smartwatch.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Guessing games

    If I knew the precise answer to that I'd go off and do it and make enough money to live in a solid gold castle!

    I don't know the specifics, but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that killer apps will fall into one of the following categories: Fitness, Medicine, and Gaming.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Apps and marketplace

    Are apps and a marketplace critical to smartwatch success?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Absolutely, they're growing

    Given our obsession with apps on smartphones I do think that apps and a marketplace are critical to success. Samsung's Galaxy Gear launched with a limited marketplace that hasn't seen much growth. Pebble's new appstore is full of apps and we see new ones coming almost daily. Just like smartphones, while there may be hundreds or thousands of apps, of which, people will likely only use 5-10 on a daily basis. However, a large and well-supported app store gives people the ability to find those 5-10 essential apps.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Challenges ahead

    They are absolutely critical to the ling-term success of the smartwatch. People are quickly bored, and unless there's a constant feed of new stuff for them to do with their smartwatch, one day the battery will be allowed to go flat and the watch will be consigned to a drawer.

    But the app ecosystem presents a real challenge to any player. Without enough of a user base, developers won't be interested in the platform, but until there's a broad base of app, mainstream consumers are unlikely to be interested in the product.

    Catch-22.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    4G

    Should your smartwatch have 4G connectivity without a smartphone?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    No need

    Unless we see some amazing breakthrough in battery technology, there is no need for direct cellular connectivity on a smartwatch. Bluetooth Low Energy looks to be the most battery efficient means of providing connectivity to smartwatches and I think this is all we need for the foreseeable future.

    A smartwatch display is too small for doing too much so having an independent data connection has limited usefulness. The smartwatch market is just starting out and I don't think vendors should jump too far without seeing what the real need is for people. While the idea of a Dick Tracy communicator sounds cool, having a watch that last 4-5 hours with a data connection makes it an instant drawer tenant.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    Maybe later

    Maybe it should, but cramming a battery that could power such a device into a watch is currently impossible.

    Right now, the only real wireless option open to a smartwatch is Bluetooth.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Price tag

    What's the key price point for a smartwatch?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    $150 plus

    I would love to see smartwatches priced at $99, but that's too low to get something with good quality. Pebble's $150 is good for a fully functional smartwatch and I think they have seen decent success at this price. Their new Pebble Steel is a bit high at $250 and I think the $200 price point for a better piece of hardware is fair.

    Samsung's $300 Galaxy Gear was way too high, especially when you consider it only works with Samsung smartphones. While people pay this and more for high end regular watches, smartwatches first need to find their place in the market before they can start adding premium hardware at premium prices.

    I think the key price point of $150 for a decent quality smartwatch and $200 to $250 for a high quality device is reasonable. Given Apple's tendency to price their iPhones higher than any other phone, the iWatch may come in near the $300 price point.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Must-have gear

    $99 - $150

    For a non-Apple product, I'd say around $99 to $150. But if you're Apple you can get away with commanding a premium price maybe as high as $300.

    In my opinion the Pebble Steel, which has a $250 price tag, is too expensive for the product to go mainstream.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Waste of time

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks again...

    ...for spending your time with us. And thanks to Matt and Adrian for giving us up-to-the-minute analysis. Closing arguments will be posted on Wednesday and Thursday, I will reveal my final decision for the winner. Don't forget to read the comments and vote.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

Closing Statements

Tomorrow's must-have gear

Matthew Miller

It seems that the people have clearly spoken when it comes to smartwatches, even when I was arguing for them as tomorrow’s must-have gear.

I find my Pebble to be a solid companion to my smartphone that adds efficiency to my life, but you really must try using one before completely judging them. At their current prices, I don’t think people are willing to give them a try and it is going to take someone like Apple to see if there really is a market for the smartwatch.

When Apple launched the iPad there wasn’t much of a tablet market and now the iPad and Android tablets sell quite well. When I take an honest look at my Pebble, there really isn’t a ‘killer’ must-have application so until there is something that really demands a smartwatch be present I will concede that they are not today’s must-have gear. However, they could be tomorrow’s must-have gear, as I argued.

Soon to be forgotten

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

There's no doubt that smartwatches are going to hit the market this year. The question is whether they will be a hit, and right now, given what I've seen so far in the form of the Pebble and the Galaxy Gear, they seem to be little more than a second screen for the smartphone, and this means that they are dispensable. 
 
I want to live that dream of having a smartwatch that James Bond or Dick Tracy would have been proud of, but I don't see either of these giving the smartwatch of 2014 a second glance. 
 
Unless Apple gets into the game, I predict that the smartwatches of 2014 will be languishing in a drawer along with other forgotten kit before the year is out.

Tomorrow, yes. Today, too early

Larry Dignan

To me, the cast of smartwatches is mediocre to boring at best. However, it's hard to make the case that they will be soon forgotten. Matthew Miller made his point the best, but the real reason he won is because he was arguing for "tomorrow's" must have gear.

Today, forget the smartwatch because it's too early. With refinement, the smartwatch can be viable. Miller stopped short of convincing me the devices will be must have, but did well enough to trump Adrian Kingsley-Hughes by a bit.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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