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

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...

TOPICS: Mobility

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.


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.


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.

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

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.

Topic: Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • For the young

    I'm about to turn 60 and love my Sony Smartwatch. You are correct, however, that you need to know what it's used for and how. Quick notifications for IMs, phone calls (both with the capability to send a canned response from the watch), tweets and RSSs for my favorite ongoing news story, reminder alarms (with notes!) all without digging for my phone.

    At my age, I don't give a cr@p how it looks: but also at my age, I really like the 'where's my phone now?' app (^_^).

    Shame about the backlight in the sunshine though.
    • The utility of Google Glass

      At your future age you'll need Google Glass to remind you in real time what a notification is and perhaps popup step by step instructions for how to respond. (^_^)
    • You make a very valid point

      At most, time, weather and "Notifications"; that's about all a smart watch needs to do.
  • Incoming

    For me a smart watch should be all about incoming events, in other words Kiss (keep it simple stupid). I would also like to see perhaps a eink screen or one that can be easily seen in bright sunlight.

    You should be able to view incoming events with a quick glance. It should also be under 100 dollars.
    • Spot on!

      People don't want an overloaded smart watch. They want a simple notification watch. If it only displayed the time, current weather, and event notifications, (maybe a stock ticker?) it might have a shot at selling. It would also have to be under $100 and not look like a toy. Using a lit E-ink screen would also have the important benefit of pushing the battery life back into the realm of reasonable for a watch. It does not need to be a touch screen. It just needs to have a simple interface with a few buttons.

      Whoever comes up with this simple notification watch, may actually sell a bunch. Nobody wants the added complexity of a zillion smart phone features duplicated on a tiny, wrist-mounted screen.
      • That would be the Pebble...

        It's e-ink based, backlit, has only four buttons, and is simple to use. If they can get manufacturing up to sufficient scale, they could probably price it down to $100. That's a big "IF" though and that's coming from someone who backed the project on Kickstarter and owns a red one.
    • E-Ink!

      Yes, bring on the e-ink! We need more products that can be seen in direct sunlight!
    • been waiting on a good smartwatch

      For home automation.
      The Galaxy Gear looks promising for controlling house functions.
      The camera opens up visual scanning for things like dynamic 2d barcodes and 2 way optical authentication for non-RF security application.
      Waterproof and infrared would be desirable features.
      It's a good start in the right direction and hopefully Samsung listens to users and developers and evolve smartwatches like they do phones.
  • A purpose

    I agree with Nerill. Being a year behind you I am not young but I bought my Sony Smart to allow me to read incoming messages quickly while I am out and about so I don't have to dig my phone out from under coats, sweaters, etc. It works extremely well for me for the purpose I purchased it for.
  • Forget About It

    Pebble is a pretty piece of plastic that serves as a watch (as long as it is FREQUENTLY charged). Purchasing a Pebble was a huge disappointment: My Pebble arrived DOA. At this point the bad news really began.

    There is no access to tech support at Pebble via telephone. You must depend upon multiple e-mails. Count on a couple of days before receiving a reply. Moreover, the support you receive is WORTHLESS. Your e-mail will direct you to You Tube and web pages, which you already viewed and read trying to get the watch to work in the first place. Eventually, if you are lucky, you will receive an "invitation" to return the watch and receive a replacement--not a new watch but a refurbished one.

    I rejected the invitation and asked for a refund, a message ignored FOUR times. I contacted my credit card company and filed a dispute. It was only AFTER I filed the dispute that I received the "invitation" to receive a replacement, which I declined and returned the watch, my credit card company having credited my account.

    Conclusion: To know the time by looking at a pretty piece of plastic, you may like Pebble. But if your watch arrives DOA or does not work properly, you will need divine intervention to receive any useful technical support or to find out how to return the watch for a refund. The only relief I received was from my credit card company. I found nothing to recommend this company or its product. If you want a Smartwatch, I'd wait for an Apple version.

    • Bummer

      Sorry to read that you've had such a poor experience with your Pebble. I have a red one and I've had zero problems with mine.
  • government would force to wear ... drones can get a better target lock

    How embarrassing, I chuckled out loud at that one.

    Two things (in my opinion) would improve the Samsung watch. 1) get rid of the big camera in the strap. In fact 2) get rid of the plastic strap and replace it with a proper metal band.
  • Right idea wrong age group

    Frankly I think the agist crap is getting pretty tiresome. I actually suspect that the right device will appeal to those who are older and are a bit shy about peeking at their phones during conversations and meetings (ie: NOT the 20 somethings).

    I am in my 50s and I want a smart watch that gives notifications for all the things I program my phone to notify me of. It needs a vibrate and a simple e-ink display that tells me enough to make a decision with, and lets me defer or dismiss with a simple gesture.

    I don't want a camera on it. I don't need a battery draining, washed out in sunlight color display. I want to put it in a charger once a week or less. I certainly don't want to enter data on it.
    • What he said

      I have a first gen Sony smartwatch and agree completely. It should be a running list of notifications, chosen by you, with a time display at idle, on an e-ink screen. Even the first gen Sony tries too much.
    • Agreed!

      I'm forty and I love my Pebble.

      Believe it or not, the primary reason I wanted a Pebble is because I wanted a device that was tethered to my smartphone and could notify me when calls, emails or texts came in while I'm doing things that are loud (mowing the lawn, clearing the driveway with a snow thrower, attending a show) or prevent me from having my phone readily at hand (long bike rides, snowboarding).

      I'm essentially on-call for work 24/7 and needed a way to make sure that I would not miss a call or message.
    • Exactly.

      And if the mfrs. don't listen to our needs, I'll just stick with my tried and true Casio, thank you very much.
  • First Gen Sony Smartwatch

    I have a first gen Sony smartwatch that does exactly what I need in showing notices on my wrist without me having to take my smartphone out of my pocket. It's not perfect - I can't see it at all when it's sunny, and I am afraid to get it wet at all - but for $99, I am happy with it. And it works with my 2 year old LG Optimus V.
  • Tough decision -

    - do we take the word of one person, or wait a month and see what the market decides?

    Because let's face it, he offers no reason why his view is special in any way, or better informed, or representative of some part of the market.

    Also - and this is relevant - he's written a book called "Death of the PC", so he's obviously got zero clue about what's really going on.

    It could have been worse - he could have called it "A New Dawn - PC 2.0"
    • And what good does "killing the messenger" serve?

      Just because things are changing and you don't like it doesn't mean the messenger has any effect on the outcome. For all that you may not like the idea that the PC world has changed, you can't stop that change; it's running at full speed now and the PC as we knew it is going fast.

      Sure, there will still be PCs a-plenty; there are things the desktop computer can do that no mobility device can yet really handle (even taking the Surface Pro into account). But the mobility device offers a level of portability that no other portable computer does--it lets you use it no matter where you are--without requiring you to set it down to operate it. BUT, that mobility device needs to be easy to use in that mobility environment, which is why the Windows 8 tablets will never fully succeed. Well, except for the Windows RT devices.
  • Getting the Gear

    Well, I'm getting the Gear and the Note 3. I'm a huge fan of the Note series, and the Gear will just enhance the experience. At the very least, I will use the S-Health apps and control my music while running and working out. I'll also use it for quick search queries, using S-Voice. I can see getting any kind of notifications will be more convenient, as well.

    I think it's worth keeping in mind that this is version 1.0 for Samsung. Seems likely that the next couple of iterations will start to appeal to a broader audience, as they start to gain more understanding about the category.