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

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.

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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

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

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32 comments
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  • A Watch is Still Useful, Smart or Not

    Yes, you can pull out a phone to look at the time. But looking at your wrist is simply easier and more natural. Similarly, a watch can function as an easily accessible user interface to complement the smartphone (or tablet) you carry. It doesn't replace the smartphone, it makes its information more accessible for key messages and indicators. Used this way its tiny screen is sufficient, as is its processing power.
    Spatha@...
    • I'm surrounded by clocks.

      There's a clock on my cell phone, my stove, my microwave, my toaster, my cable box, my car dashboard, my computer, my office phone. You can't get away from clocks! Who the f--k needs a watch to know what time it is?

      Most people don't wear watches anymore. Putting on a watch when you don't normally wear one is anything but natural. You wind up looking at it every 3 seconds.

      There is already a large "status symbol" market for watches and it has little to do with the gadget aspect.

      iWatch solves no technology problem. Apple will be hard-pressed to find "the problem that I didn't know I had" to make this idea a winner.
      RationalGuy
      • Simple

        Just add a glasshole jammer and the iWatch would be golden! Any other functionality would just be icing.
        Gr8Music
      • clocks. .! . .

        Try Alaska! - Clocks on EVERY wall. . . ! (nice? in Winter!)
        bjtrexel
      • an iWatch is only to tell time?

        Saying you don't want an iWatch because you already know what time it is is missing the point, I think. Of course I'm assuming Apple will put something more than a clock on it, but I think that's a safe assumption.
        frylock
    • Similar to an ear piece

      I think you hit the nail on the head, it's an accessory, similar to the bluetooth earpiece. I would love to be able to check who is calling by glancing at my wrist instead of pulling the phone out of my pocket.

      The phone only needs to come out when you need to view a larger screen.
      smallbzznzz
    • Watches have never been the easiest things to wear;

      They force you to turn your wrist at an unnatural angle to read their faces--we just got used to that.

      I, for one, have effectively quit wearing watches of any sort--especially wrist watches for that specific reason. What is more natural is that the face of the watch should be at the side of the wrist, not the flat top or bottom. If a watch is going to be comfortable, it needs to be long and narrow and curved enough to follow the approximate shape of the forearm. Since you're doing that, then why not use one of the old iPod mini (tall and narrow) or one of the newer Nano iPods (long and narrow with digital touch display.) It wouldn't be a watch per se, but it would definitely serve the purpose. There's only one problem; the need to recharge it on a regular basis.

      Now, I am aware that some modern watches can recharge through the crystal (glass dome) of the watch face. However, most of those watches are semi-mechanical and use the power more to keep the regulator crystal humming than to actively power the watch. Think of it as a sort of auto-winder on what might otherwise be a very weak spring. A digital watch simply can't get enough charge to serve functionally as an I/O device, especially if it operates any form of wireless communications. In other words, you're going to be tethered to a power source one way or another at least for an hour or two every day or so.

      Right now, I believe all this rush for a 'mobility' watch is simply trying to beat Apple to something they may not even have considered--yet.
      Vulpinemac
  • Useful or not, some will buy anything.

    None of my kids or their kids or their kids friends wear a watch. In that group there will be some who will buy anything. That will always exist.
    BadDog40
    • kids didn't use telegraphs 10 years ago either

      now look at em
      frylock
  • Smartphone will disappear in 7 years

    The smartphone is 7 years old. Development of devices like the iWatch point to the likelihood that the functional elements of the smartphone will be deconstructed to better suit diverging demand contexts and reduce costs. It would be far more cost effective to have a $15-30 radio access "hub" that connects to "n" devices seamlessly. I might have 5 different watches for different purposes, or have 5 different health/biometric sensors, or have 5 different glasses or 5 different "screen" devices. And that's just stuff I carry around or is on my body. Everyone will have different needs and requirements.

    Everything else not attached to my body will interact with my "hub" in close proximity. The hub's power/battery won't be constrained by handling all the processing for the dozens of simultaneous actions/sessions happening around me. It will be easily and cheaply replaceable if lost and work across numerous access networks. There are no limits and that should make the vendor and tech sector and consumers quite happy.

    Today's vertically integrated monopoly service provider model is an anachronism and inefficient and leads to a mirroring on the device vendor side. Service monopoly leads to vendor monopoly. It perpetuates the "all-in-one" converged mentality with high-cost handsets that obsolete rapidly. At some point it will give way to demand and economic realities. My guess is it might happen sooner than 10 years either driven by MSFT or Google or a 3rd party (or group of laggard device vendors) we haven't heard of.
    InfoStack
    • 10 years, huh?

      I'll just leave this right here: http://xkcd.com/678/
      Ndiaz.fuentes
  • Smart

    It doesn't take a genius to figure out a suitable system involving wrist worn devices.

    Combine the display of Glass, the processing power of a smartphone and the control of a wrist worn touch device and you have a viable component system for wearables. Get them to communicate wirelessly, and be sparing with battery life and you'll be there in no time.

    The reason it won't take off is because none of the players want to design in interoperability. They want you inside their own walled garden.

    Well sorry folks, but the only way this kind of thing takes off is thru early adopters, and generally they don't like being told what they can and can't do, and how or how not to use some hardware.
    daveydouble
  • The main problem for the iwatch is that

    humans have only one left hand (or only one right hand in case of lefties).
    If needed be I can carry around many mobile devices, but I can only ware one watch.

    And please tell me again why all of them are so ugly?
    ForeverSPb
  • Watches are past

    A watch is a device that can easily be knocked, banged into something, snag on coats, etc.

    While I would love to have a premium piece of waterproof, g-proof, chronographical jewelry, on my wrist, I know I would scratch it up. So I dont bother.

    To me, smartwatches are the same. Just another pricey tech gadget to get messed up.
    Non-Euclidean
  • Suckers

    I think the whole iwatch rumour was put out by Apple just to see who jumps on the bandwaggon, its a joke product.
    johnafish
  • My 2 Cents

    I just think that a watch or smart-watch will only ever succeed if it's a complimentary product. I don't think it will ever truly replace the smartphone, one of the biggest reasons being screen size. Sure, smartphones have been out awhile now, but the screen size is getting bigger with each new model. A smart-watch would be a huge step-back in that trend. I think the best chance at success smart-watches will have is if you can pair them with your mobile device. Being able to check messages, check emails, see incoming calls, tweets, ect while your phone is sitting in your bag/pocket/ect would be extremely convenient. Especially for those who are consistently traveling.

    Watches are also a lot less conspicuous than phones. It's a lot less rude to quickly glance at your wrist than it is to whip out your phone while on a meeting, out to dinner, on a date, ect.

    The potential is definitely there.
    TechIan16
  • YOU HIT IT TECH IAN16

    IT’S LESS RUDE TO GLANCE AT YOUR WRIST. SO IMAGE SOME DUDE IS ON A DATE. BUT WANTS TO KEEP TABS ON JUST THE SCORE OF A GAME. HE SETS IT UP HIS WATCH. GIVES IT A QUICK PEEK. THAT MAY SEEM A LITTLE UNDER HANDED (PUN INTENDED) BUT IF HIS DATE ASKS WHY DO YOU KEEP CHECKING YOUR WATCH YOU JUST TELL HER YOU DON’T WANT TO BE LATE FOR THE MOVIE. IF HE KEEPS CHECKING IT AT THE DARK THEATER THEN HE IS OUT WITH THE WRONG GAL. SORRY FOR THE ALL CAPS BUT I’M USING A SMALL LAPTOP RIGHT NOW AND I’M VISUALLY IMPAIRED. SO, THE WATCH WON’T WORK FOR ME. BUT STILL IT IS INTERESTING
    thecdmoose
    • Get a life, dude!

      The dude can either go on a date or watch the game. Not both.
      Unfortunately, there are lots of losers like your imaginary acquaintance.
      radu.m
    • Wouldn't it just be easier

      to date a girl who likes sports?
      William Farrel
    • your iWatch

      will come sans caps lock key, let's hope
      frylock