Apple Watch or Android Wear? Neither. Why smartwatches aren't ready for prime time

Lack of platform maturity, poor third party integration, no cross platform interop and heavy dependence on smartphones for most functions put them strictly in the early adopter category.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

I've given a lot of thought to smartwatches. Mostly due to the fact that I don't own one yet.

It isn't that I don't want to own a smartwatch. It's just that there are so many shortcomings and the vendor offerings are so immature at this stage of the game that unless you really enjoy being an early adopter, smartwatches are just too expensive for what functionality they deliver today.

This is not to say I don't use a wearable now -- I have a Microsoft Band, but I don't wear it every day as a constant companion. I use it specifically to track my fitness activity, and for its intended design purpose, it works very well. Also, at $199, it's not a huge investment if I have to replace it in two years or even sooner.

Fitness trackers, in my opinion, have a very targeted audience and a much narrower set of functionality than what smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices are intended for. And as such they cost a lot less, and do less.

Both Apple Watch and Android Wear are technological marvels. There are some interesting apps coming out for each platform, but there's nothing super-compelling yet.

In the case of the Apple Watch, at a starting price of $350.00 before you even get into nicer straps or larger watch faces, which brings you closer to $700 for one you really want, that's not screaming out to me to go charge my AMEX and rush out and get one.

Android Wear is a little further along in that it has a dedicated SDK, and (currently) runs a more complete software stack on it than Apple Watch does. Apple is rumored to be unveiling a native SDK for Apple Watch at the upcoming WWDC, so we'll just have to wait and see how close to the metal the developers can actually get.

Both platforms have the disadvantage of being ecosystem specific in regards to which smartphones they integrate with. Apple Watch can only talk to iOS devices and Android Wear can only talk to other Android Devices.

There's absolutely no cross-compatibility from a device communication standpoint. So given that I own an iPhone, my only logical choice is an Apple Watch if I want to get a smartwatch even if Android Wear is a more mature platform. Yes, I know about Pebble. I wish them luck.

This state of affairs sucks, frankly.

I don't want to come off as being partisan or hawking my employer's wares, but at least my Microsoft Band can talk to my iPhone, my Android Tablet and my Windows Phone through the Microsoft Health application and get notifications from Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and system notifications from all of those devices if I decide to switch between them.

In a previous piece I talked about The Internet of Things in your home being a Tower of Babel of sorts. Smartwatches, as the current ne plus ultra of IoT devices, should seek to try to unify all the connectivity to these things, but so far they do a pretty crappy job at it.

They all rely on smartphone connectivity in order to do most of what they need to do, so they can't really act autonomously and interface with other devices directly.

Part of this is due to the fact that we don't really have the supporting wireless network infrastructure for a smartwatch to talk directly to anything (other than a smartphone using Bluetooth) without wasting a ton of battery life.

Apple Watch and selected Android Wear devices have Wi-Fi. but the existing 802.11g/n 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz chipsets neither have the range nor the optimal power consumption characteristics a smartwatch would need to run fully untethered for very long.

Quite frankly if and when the cost of these watches comes down, and we see adoption go through the roof, should the Wi-Fi state of affairs stay the way it is, we will completely saturate every public access point if we have that many watches talking to them directly.

802.11ac Multi-User MIMO is a step in the right direction, as Multi-User MIMO client chipsets for single antennae will consume far less power than what is currently being put in existing mobile devices, and they will be able to handle far more volume than the access points that are in circulation today.

But that's still more oriented towards future smartphones and tablets rather than smartwatches.

The real communications future for smartwatches is going to be in 802.11ah, or the sub-1Ghz spectrum, which will offer greatly increased range as well as far lower power consumption than even the Multi-User MIMO in the latest "Wave 2" implementation of 802.11ac.

But it will be a few years before we start seeing that standard being implemented in "Tri-band" access points at businesses and in the home.

I'd also like to point out that having to hook your watch up to a cable to charge it every evening is stupid. It's bad enough that most of us continue to endure it with smartphones and tablets.

It's nice that we saw two wireless charging standards, PMA and A4WP agree to merge this week, but now that means we still have the Wireless Power Consortium's Qi and... something else, whatever it ends up being called.

My hope is one of these will prevail and then the device manufacturers will focus on that standard. Which given Apple's history with charging interfaces is wishful thinking, but at least with their adoption USB-C there's some hope that they are more open to embracing industry standards rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Smartwatches are in their infancy. It's an interesting space to keep abreast of, but I'm not slapping one on my wrist anytime soon. How about you? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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