Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Summary: The iWatch isn't a new idea - tech giants have been trying to get smartwatches right for more than a decade.

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  • 2001 IBM WatchPad

    Despite the recent excitement about smartwatches from Microsoft, Google, Samsung and maybe even Apple, it's not a new idea – the tech industry has been trying to come up with a viable watch-like computing device for decades. Here are some of the highlights.

    Could you get more 2013 than an internet-enabled designer watch running an open source operating system?

    Sadly 2001 got there first: IBM Research and Citizen Watch built a Linux-based watch called WatchPad, which they hoped would illustrate the viability of the then-novel operating system "across all platforms, from large enterprise servers, to medium-sized and small servers, workstations, desktop systems, laptops and the smallest intelligent devices".

    The device featured a QVGA (320 x 240 pixel) LCD screen, Bluetooth and accelerometer – and ran on Linux version 2.4. It only had a battery life of a few hours.

    "Internet-enabled watches are a popular publicity gimmick," said CNET at the time, and many would still agree today.

    Still, the WatchPad wasn't the only smartwatch around – another early device of note was the Matsucom onHand PC, with a calendar-and-scheduling program, an address book, a notepad, an expense keeper, four games – and a joystick to navigate all of that.

    Image: Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © (2001) International Business Machines Corporation.

  • 2002 Fossil Wrist PDA

    The Fossil Wrist PDA came in Palm and Pocket PC version and with a 190KB memory that could store 1,100 contacts, 5,000 To Do items, 800 appointments, or 350 memos.

    The 2002 device aimed to prove that a watch could deliver all the capabilities of a PDA (remember them?) into a piece of hardware that could be worn on the wrist. This was one of number of smartwatch models released by Fossil during this period.

    Image: CNET

  • 2006 Microsoft Spot

    Inevitably Microsoft had its own smartwatch project running, as part of its Smart Personal Objects Technology (Spot) Initiative.

    As a Microsoft exec said at the time: "Imagine how handy it would be to have a travel alarm clock that, in addition to telling time very accurately and auto-adjusting to time-zones, could also wake you to your favorite WMA-encoded music, display information about road closures along your expected travel route, and deliver urgent messages." Yup, very handy.

    This information was delivered via FM radio signals which could be picked up in around 100 US cities (plus some in Canada), through an antenna built into the watchstrap. The watch above came with a free year of MSN Direct Smart Plan which delivered news, business, technology and sports reports to the watch. For an extra $20 users could also get access to two days' worth of Outlook Calendar appointments and text messages via MSN Messenger.

    The watches - perhaps unsuprisingly - weren't a huge success. As well as being bulky and requiring frequent charging, the small screen meant a limited amount of information could be delivered and the ongoing cost of subscribing to services made them a less than appealing prospect. Microsoft shuttered its Spot project in 2008.

Topics: Hardware, Smartphones

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  • Notable omissions

    I had a Mitsumi OnHand PC back in 2004 (also known as the Ruputer), which had address book and calendar support, bitmap graphics and an SDK for writing apps. The calendar and address book could sync with Outlook.

    Going further back, the Timex Datalink offered calendar and address book functionality but these had to be transferred from a PC by displaying a pattern of lines on the monitor.

    However, the most obvious nomination for a smartwatch must be the Android-based Motorola MOTOACTV.
    krokosh
    • Surprising number of devices when you start looking

      Thanks for the suggestions - the more you look the more you realise how many attempts at a smartwatch/iwatch have been made already. I'll try to add some more if I can track down some more images.
      Steve Ranger
      • The first Microsoft smartwatch

        Simon still wears the Timex Datalink, made in conjunction with Microsoft. there was an IR adapter for updating it when CRTs weren't available. Bill Buxton has a list of 12 smartwatches on his digital collection at MSR, from the 1984 Casio touch watch that introduced double click and the 1984 Casio touch watch where you could write numbers on screen with your finger to the 1985 Seiko to which you could download you calendar to the Tissot touchscreen watch to the LG Dick Tracy nonsense a few years back. Worth tracking down one of his lectures on smart watches and UX.
        mary.branscombe
      • Timex Datalink

        According to Wikipedia, this was the first watch that transferred contact and schedule data directly from your PC. I had one in 1994. It was a great device, at the time. These days, a smart watch is redundant to our cell phones.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Datalink
        BillDem
    • Seiko too

      Back in the 80s Seiko did some watches with a data bank and mini keyboard.

      Not sure if they were particularly "smart" but they certainly were geeky.
      dcarmi
      • Seiko

        I had one of those and I liked it a lot. The phone sat in a cradle on the keyboard and recieved signals via an induction coil, similar to the way some phones use wireless chargers today. The big drawback was you had to re-enter your entire contact list when you changed the battery. Real PITA.
        DT2
    • Timex Datalink

      I had 2 different versions of the Datalink watch and really liked them. The first one I received as a prize at NetWorld in 1997 and it came with software to sync up with GroupWise. I enjoyed showing folks how it got its data from a flashing CRT. It was great for getting me to meetings on time.
      boomchuck1
  • old touch screen Tissot

    I remember the Tissot T-Touch from 1999 with touch screen that looks like analog mechanical watch but with tactile functions on screen, not on this list but interesting...
    Torch4x4
  • HP 01

    You forget the Grandfather:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP-01
    renatobovo@...
  • I.B.M. also invented Smartphones and P.C.'s

    Yet that didn't help anything, much like how Microsoft invented the Tablet, other people learn form YOUR mistakes YOU made in the past, this is great for innovation, but not for business, YOU invent a market, but YOU would never excell in it, the sad-story of I.B.M.
    Văn Minh Nguyễn
  • Fugly 80s and 90s Casio watches are missing

    Just google for "Casio calculator watch" with image search turned on. Hilarious !!
    EnticingHavoc
    • Hey! Some of us loved those things!

      They weren't just geek watches either! Everyone still had a pocket calculator... There were expensive "professional" pocket calculators too. When they came out they really were hi-tech; a wrist calculator and Filofax ... Can you imagine the possibilities?? No mobile phones yet....

      Oh yeah and the watch that could change tv channels! Again not all tv's had remotes then :-0!!
      MarknWill
  • Casio

    Though not a "smart watch" by current standards, I've been wearing a Casio DataBank in one form or another for over 20 years. The rugged lil' buggers have served me well.

    I look forward to seeing what the various players come up with for actual use. Then I'll probably buy another DataBank.
    sperry532@...
  • Interesting...

    Thanks for the article and history lesson. Food for thought.
    ITOdeed
  • 10 Year old Timex Datalink Watches sell for over $200

    Your list forgot to mention the Timex Datalink watches.

    These watches were programmable (hundreds of contacts, alarms, notes, stopwatches, etc.). Some of them were water-resistant to 100 meters and ran for years on one set of batteries. Try swimming with your cell phone on 2 year old batteries! 10++ year old used watches sell for $150 - $300 on eBay. This shows a dedicated user base. I was hoping that Timex would make some new models, but now I'll watch for the new watches coming to market.

    The early watches (which stopped working when Windows XP came out) were programmed by holding the watch up to a blinking CRT screen. The later ones were programmed via a USB cable and could both send and receive data.
    scott_dixon@...
  • wheres the motoactv?!!

    Motoactv. Probably the most powerful smartwatch out there with bluetooth 4. Gps. Wifi. Full colour screen. Android. Waterproof. Pedometer. 8/16gb. Music player.
    Cant beleive it was missed out!!
    jkwr
  • You forgot

    I still have the old Timex Datalink that you'd hold a few inches from the screen, press a button, and the screen would flash like crazy...importing your appointments from Schedule +.

    Ahhh...those were the days.
    rag@...
  • Love my Sony Smartwatch

    I really love my Sony Smartwatch and use it daily. It lasts about a week on a charge if I turn it off at night. The latest update improved its reliability and usefulness. I think the tech press have been very unfair to it and not tested it properly... a long term test is best.
    roblightbody
  • You forgot this one...

    http://www.digibarn.com/collections/mags/byte-covers/Image21.jpg
    cosuna
  • Windows Mobile 2007 debacle

    I think the real issue came when Microsoft blew up thier Mobile lead (at the time of Spot Microsoft owned > 40% of the Mobile market), but screwing up the release of Windows Mobile 7 in 2007 killed Microsoft in Mobile shedding half thier market share every year until this year... :) And with the help of the cross licensing of Android, Microsoft now licenses > 60% of the Mobile market! If this screw up didn't happen, I believe Spot would have succeeded, but thats a story that can't be told.
    CharlesClarke