Building the perfect smartwatch

April 19, 2013

In my tech predictions of 2013 I somehow missed that this would be the year of the smartwatch. But now the most established names in tech are realizing the future may be all in the wrist.

Smartwatches are shaping up to be the Next Big Thing about a decade after they were offered to the public and met with a collective shrug. Timing can be everything in tech. Microsoft marketed a stylus-enabled PC in 2001, but the tablet concept was a nonstarter until the iPad. Even the e-reader had a first life as The Rocket — before the dot-com boom. But it was Amazon, in 2007, that reimagined the device and took the brass ring.

There is still essentially no smartwatch market, but at least one analyst is asserting that more than a million could be sold this year. That astonishing — and dubious — claim would amount to one-third of the anticipated 2013 sales of netbook (which I did predict would surge in 2013).

The renaissance began last year when a startup called Pebble began a Kickstarter campaign to build an eponymous smartwatch. Pebble’s small team raised the $200,000 it sought two hours into its 30-day fundraising period. Pebble stopped taking seed money when it reached $10 million.

Behind schedule, Pebble has finally shipped to all 55,000 backers (I was one of them). The wait to now buy one is two-three months. So the project was a rousing success. So good, apparently, that it got the attention of big tech companies — which is to say it stoked their competitive impulses to leave no, er, pebble unturned to tap into a new market.

Now everybody seems to know what time it is. The bidding began with Apple, which is said to be working on an iWatch. Samsung quickly jumped in as well. The next rumor was that Google, which is going in all sorts of directions these days, is also getting into the act. The latest company that reportedly wants a piece of the action is Microsoft. 

Like tablets and e-readers before them, smartwatches are now much better poised to fill an actual need because of how other tech has evolved. Just as events conspired to make tablets practical — cloud computing, stylus-free touch screens, ultra-portability — the smartwatch era approaches because smartphones have become ubiquitous. Microsoft was one of the earliest proponents of the smartwatch, but its 2002 SPOT smartwatch went nowhere fast. Others, from Fossil and Timex, also served as mini personal information managers in a bid to rival Palm. 

It would be five years until Apple would introduce the iPhone, so there was still a market for portable, Internet-connected devices that served up weather and other real-time information. But the proto-smartwatches tended to be expensive — as much as $300 — and Microsoft required you to subscribe to its MSN service for about $60 a year. Expensive equipment and recurring fees made no sense for things that were essentially toys (but, ironically, are exactly what we willingly pay for smartphones).

Now smartphones do all the heavy lifting; the demands on the watch are fewer. All a good smartwatch has to do is be in constant contact with your phone, serving as a gatekeeper and controller.

As I noted in my Reuters review of Pebble, the watch doesn’t do much. But by relaying messages and alerts to my specifications it frees me from checking on my phone’s flood of notifications. I’m reaching for my phone so rarely that Pebble’s creators should have called it “Pocket Protector.”

None of us, of course, have any idea of what the unreleased smartwatches will be. This makes it the perfect time to speculate on what they should be. So here’s my nobody-asked-for-it list of what smartwatches should do and not do.

  • Key among the features of these unicorns is that they work well with any phone, even if they work best with their own kind. Undoubtedly all four companies allegedly entering the fray will design watches that leverage their own phones — Apple is especially good at this sort of gentle bondage to its ecosystem since it controls both the hardware and software. But a smartwatch can also be a gateway gadget: This is an opportunity to both strengthen loyalty and introduce new customers, with what could be an entry-level device, to phones they might not have otherwise considered.
  • Maximizing battery life is essential. We tolerate watches because they are relatively maintenance free — nobody wants to wind a stem every day. So sacrifice nice-to-have but battery-intensive features for endurance. Already Pebble has crossed that line by making available two games, snake and Tetris. No games. Please.
  • On charging: Make it wireless. If there ever was a candidate for wireless charging, it’s the smartwatch. The technology hasn’t caught on much with smartphones, which are easy to dock and for which we are particular about cases, including not wanting to use a case at all. But a watch is the classic “lay it on the table” device. Companies like PowerMat have been trying to mainstream so-called inductive energy transfer by creating cases that would draw power to a device from special surfaces. All you have to do is set it down.
  • Navigation on a tiny wrist device is one of the biggest challenges. The Pebble has four buttons, which seems just about right. But multifunction watches can drive a person crazy since they require particular button-press combinations to access certain features. And spare me a touchscreen interface — not enough screen to touch, or too big a screen for your wrist. But there is a mechanical design feature that would help with navigation: screen switching by pressing the watch face. My bicycle computer does this with a feature CatEye calls ClickTec. The smartwatch need is similar: You only have one free hand. Buttons are nice and essential, but click to switch would make it easier to scroll through pages, which makes multiple screens offering different data a feature rather than a tease.
  • There’s opportunity in the watch band. You wear a watch exactly where you want to take you blood pressure and pulse, and those of us who should often don’t. Several companies, including FitBit and Nike, already market bands, so it’s just a matter of agreeing to some simple sizing specifications.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC) is also a natural component. The small NFC chip emits radio signals over a very short distance, making it a relatively secure way to wirelessly beam payment information, for example, to NFC-enabled point-of-sale terminals. NFC is built into many phones — notably not the iPhone, which is what would make it an especially intriguing addition to the “iWatch.” Why in your watch? As convenient as it is to produce your phone so you can wave your hand to pay at the cash register, it’s even easier to wave your hand without the phone.

Smartwatches may not be the next iPad, but I can’t imagine a world without them. In the perfect world I’m imagining, we’ll have several to choose from. And then we can start moving on to more body parts.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Pebble.

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