The smartwatch worth waiting for

The smartwatch worth waiting for

Summary: The smartwatches announced this week are interesting but fatally flawed. The smartwatch that captures the market will excel at three things.


One of the timeless principles of the technology industry is that if your product has to rely on users to do a lot of configuration, then it's doomed to failure. Most will spend very little time doing it. That's why out-of-the-box experience matters. That's why default settings matter. And, that's why the best products are "as simple as possible, but not simpler" (thank you, Mr. Einstein).

Image: iStockphoto/greyfebruary

This principle is important to remember as you think about smartwatches.

If you look at the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Qualcomm Toq—each announced on Wednesday—they both get it wrong by trying to graft too much smartphone functionality onto a watch. They overthink it.

There's a great scene in the movie City Slickers where these three fish-out-of-water New Yorkers are on horseback herding cattle all afternoon. Billy Crystal's character uses the time to explain to Daniel Stern's character how to record something on his VCR. Stern doesn't get it so Crystal patiently tries to break it down for him (unsuccessfully). Finally, Bruno Kirby breaks in and yells, "He doesn't get it! He'll never get it! It's been four hours. The cows can tape something by now."

I'd expect that kind of reaction if you strapped the Galaxy Gear or the Toq on the wrist of a random New Yorker today and tried to explain how to pair it with a smartphone and set it up so that it can do something useful for them. Most of them wouldn't get it or they'd ask why on earth they would want it.

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The winning move for a smartwatch is far simpler.

It does not need a full touchscreen that mimics a smartphone. If you have to constantly touch and flip and navigate on a smaller version of a smartphone screen (see this tortured video of a Samsung rep demonstrating the Galaxy Gear) then you're going to quickly get frustrated and just whip out your smartphone.

Very few people are going to want to wear a big square screen on their wrists—even those of us who have ogled Dick Tracy's legendary watch for years. It's just not practical or necessary. A much more functional smartwatch would be something closer in size and shape to the Nike Fuelband, but maybe slightly wider and with a more powerful OLED display. That would provide lots of room to iterate and innovate on style to make fashion accessories as well.

Functionally, this smartwatch would pair with a smartphone by simply tapping the two together and confirming (the Galaxy Gear gets that part right) and then it will mostly just work auto-magically.

It shouldn't try to foist a dumbed-down smartphone experience into the watch. It doesn't need a camera. And it doesn't have to be another phone interface (a Bluetooth headset does that much better). You don't need to send messages from it.

The ideal smartwatch will focus on three things it can do uniquely do well:

  1. Notification alerter
  2. Health tracker
  3. Security device

The big win for a smartwatch is notifications, and there's already consensus building around that in the tech community. We all look at our smartphones too much and it is disruptive, even rude in social settings. The smartwatch that does notifications right will win, because we all have times when we miss a text message or a call or a meeting notice because the smartphone is out of site or silenced.

However, the goal should not be focused on acting on the notifications from the smartwatch itself. It should be to alert and preview: important messages, breaking news in your interest areas, key social media triggers, upcoming meetings, sports scores for your teams, traffic alerts, flight status, and other details based on what's important to you. Then, once you've been alerted by the watch, you can use your smartphone or computer to act on the information as needed and when appropriate.

Nearly all of this is possible today with existing technologies. But, it wouldn't be nearly as expensive as the $300 Galaxy Gear or Toq.

From an alerts standpoint, the gold standard here is Android notifications and Google Now. Android notifications have gotten very smart and granular, and Google Now has taken it to the next level by automatically generating notifications for things that are important to you, based on its big data understanding of you. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that. But when many users see the value they get out of a service like Google Now that can anticipate your needs and preferences and save you from having to mess with settings and configurations, they will be keen to make the tradeoff.

Google Now once alerted me that I needed to leave in five minutes in order to make a meeting at another location, based on current traffic conditions. Luckily, I had my phone open to see it and so I acted on it. Imagine if that kind of alert could quietly vibrate my smartwatch and pop up that information and then I could politely excuse myself from the meeting I was in so that I wasn't late for my next meeting? That's a killer feature.

This isn't to say that Apple couldn't do something similar powered by iOS, but it's got a lot of catching to do and it's likely going to need to partner with service providers like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others in order to compete with Android's data smarts.

The ideal smartwatch will also be a health tracker or "quantified self" device (the hot new term for these things). It will track your steps and activity level, display status on it, and feed all of the data to backend services for you to analyze over time. Fitbit is the champ right now.

But, the real win here will be for the health tracker that can create an ecosystem. Instead of just being an isolated pedometer, it will be able to use NFC or Bluetooth to interface with treadmills, ellipticals, and other exercise machines so that it can also ingest their data as you exercise. This is a longer term play that will require the backing of a big industry player, and that's where Apple has an advantage and an opportunity because it's done this kind of thing before with the accessory ecosystem for iPod and it's trying to do it again with its iOS in the Car initiative.  

The other big opportunity for a smartwatch is to become a security device. This will have extra value for professionals and for the enterprise. In this scenario, the smartwatch can be a two-factor authentication token, where you have to both enter a password and have your smartwatch nearby detected by a proximity sensor via NFC or Bluetooth (replacing today's smartcards and USB tokens).

It could also be keyed or activated as an access badge that you can use to enter restricted buildings or areas in corporate buildings (replacing the keyed badges that many of us have to carry). And, it could be activated as a key fob for keyless entry in various types of locking systems, if the security industry can devise a secure way to transfer this capability to third party devices like smartwatches. Clearly, this too would benefit from a two-factor system such as pairing the fob with a pin or a fingerprint or (eventually) facial recognition.

Again, the interface on the smartwatch itself should be simple in the extreme. It doesn't need a huge screen. It could be 0.5 to 0.75 inches tall and 2 inches long, again similar to the size of the Nike Fuelband display but with a bright OLED screen. It should still be a touchscreen, but with simple controls. For example, swipe back and forth to flip through alerts, swipe down to dismiss them, tap on the alert to get more information, and swipe up as the back button. You get the idea.

Nearly all of this is possible today with existing technologies. But, it wouldn't be nearly as expensive as the $300 Galaxy Gear or Toq, since it wouldn't need such a large and expensive screen or a camera or other pointless add-ons. The price point for a smartwatch should be $100-$200 to make it a mass market device. Make no mistake, it's a smartphone accessory.

That's the smartwatch I'm waiting for.

Related coverage:

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones

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  • Health Tracking, lol

    I agree with notifications and security, but not health tracker. The majority of the people bleeding-edge buying electronics these days don't give a damn about their health (I speak from direct knowledge on my own part). I think a lot of people would like to have the ability to at least have some sort of outgoing connectivity to other humans on their smart watch. This seems to be lacking in your winning combination.
    • I'll disagree with you on health tracking

      So one vote for health tracking and one against.
      • I'll see your vote

        and raise it one.

        I've been considering a FitBit, but at $99, I can't bring myself to spend that kind of money on the device. If it could do the notifications like Jason mentioned, I'd already be wearing one.
        • I'll balance it back out

          Never understood why the average joe wants to monitor their health so closely. Just something else to be get stressed about. That's not a judgement, just my pov.

          Disclaimer: I like the colour red, especially on food packaging nutrition information.
          Little Old Man
          • Think BIG!

            The Baby Boomers are retireing and there isn't going to be enough health care dollars for them all and they want their independence. Don't think "fitness", think "medical monitoring". A small computer, with a screen and communicates with a cell phone. Diabetes, heart attack, stroke, seizures, falls, calls 911. What couldn't it monitor? It's gonna be BIG. This alone, IMHO, guarantees a big future for smart-watches.
          • You think the aged

            will want to wear a device that constantly reminds them of their impending death? Can't see it. There's still plenty of aged out there that don't have health issues to monitor. I honestly can't see many of them wearing a watch on the off chance they may have a h/a or stroke.

            You can already get those devices and the majority of the old, over here at least, do not choose to use one unless they have a medical condition requiring it.

            I can see it cutting benefit fraud though. Someone goes flatline and GCHQ/NSA could instantly IM their contacts in the pensions dept and stop the benefit.
            Little Old Man
          • You are not in healthcare, are you?

            Absolutely, yes they will. Not 100%, but plenty to make it worthwhile. The elderly are more than willing to have things implanted, take drugs, have invasive tests and wear devices if it can produce a measureable improvent in their lifestyle. The fact that monitoring devices exist at all proves there is demand. As I said elsewhere, just because you personally wouldn't do not assume you speak for the entire market.
          • I don't presume to talk for the market.

            I see the limited amount of consumer devices and the limited outlets that stock them as VERY niche products and I make an assessment based on that. To say I can't comment because I'm not in healthcare is just ridiculous. Some of us can use multiple senses and rational thinking. Personally, I think like many others, you're making up usage scenarios to prove your argument. The day we see mass adoption of smartwatches by the aged, just to constantly monitor their health, well, I'll go on tv and eat 100 hats.

            It really does make me laugh how you can generalise so much that "The elderly are more than willing to have things implanted".

            What a stupid statement, now who's speaking from a personal point of view and extrapolating it to everyone.
            Little Old Man
          • Health Tracking Will Be a "Killer" App

            Speaking as someone who is in my early 40s, I definitely see my body start to break down. Heart drugs, yoga, vitamin boosters, and other crazy stuff that I thought were for "other" people are now my reality. This is true for most of my friends too -- and we're all seeing our parents suffer much more serious problems like heart attacks, cancer, ms, etc. I'm not sure my 75 year old mother would care to wear a smart device, but every one of my friends already carries a smartphone, most are tied into some kind of healthcare program and internet-enabled technical ecosystem. People in their 40s would eat these things up. (If the devices actually worked and looked good.)
          • Don't think so...

            I'm a soon to be elderly. And I don't want doctors and medicines pestering me! It's invasive enough as it is! What can happen to me? I'll die? Well... that'll happen anyway! When you're old, life's already lost 90% of its fun. I wish there could be a "RESET" or "Ctrl+Alt+Del" key somewhere that could end it all. Really curious to see if there is something "on the other side".
          • WSJ

            You need to read this article in this past weekends Wall Street Journal, . It makes you think if you really want to risk some procedures that could leave you worse off than you were before. Do you want to die in a hospital full of tubes or at home in your own bed with your loved ones around you?
          • Health tracking is good.

            If the health tracking included things like Blood pressure and heart rate or maybe blood sugars then it would be great. Some doctors ask you to track these parameters for them.
    • Health Monitoring Watch

      Timex, and Casio are very big on health monitoring watches. There are also some others on the market. Timex probably has the biggest sales and the most models in this area including pedometers. Their sales are in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and have been growing. If the market was small for this type of watch, they'd not be making so many of them.
      • Now you see this is where some convergence can occur

        with health monitoring integrated you no longer need separate devices for that so I could get rid of my FitBit, Garmin 605, Garmin Swim, perhaps the Omron BP monitor. with Bluetooth or maybe even Ant support I could possibly replace my bike computer too.

        With a pen tracking tip it could auto alert me while handwriting by vibrating and displaying the correctly spelled word on my smartwatch display. Eureka that's killer.

        As it is I must have so many devices on my arm I look like a street watch salesman :-)
        • It's not watch salesman you look like

          Little Old Man
          • ...

            You are looking pretty small.
          • Ooooh the hurt

            Little Old Man
    • Agreed. crap... meh
  • Love the ideas and one enhancement would be nice if I could pair with my smartwatch a device like a phone, camera, tablet, laptop or a Tile for proximity detection so my stuff is not left behind or walk away.

    Good article.
    • Another enhancement

      I like the proximity alert idea, so you don't leave your other expensive devices behind by accident. I also like the three ideas listed in the article. My one addition to the basic "alert watch" described would be media playback. Ideally the watch should be a dead simple wireless controller and my phone would stream to a separate pair of wireless ear buds.

      The gestures he described in the article are just as easily accomplished with a button on all four sides of an inexpensive LED/LCD screen. This would make the cost much lower. Touch screens cost too much and eat batteries like crazy.

      This article hits the nail on the head as to why these devices will fail. Nobody is going to pay $300 for a second, tiny, much less capable, screen for their phone. Nobody wants to try to interact with a tiny screen in any significant way.

      People might pay $99 for the device described in this article, though. A tiny screen which just displays alerts makes far more sense than extending all of the functionality of your cell phone. Trying to do actual interaction on a tiny screen is just crazy.