Monday, November 10, 2014

Thoughts on smartwatches in general, and the Apple Watch in particular

If you're a tech geek like me, then the concept of "wearables" (i.e., wearable computers/electronics) is kind of a hot field right now.  While this could include many possibilities, the ideas with the most traction right now are things that you wear on your wrist and things that you wear on your head/face1.  There is more doubt that face things will be a thing, as Google Glass (and the like) doesn't quite appear to be catching on outside of a small niche community.  So, I guess that leaves wrist things to talk about...

The wrist thing market is basically split into two categories - fitness trackers and smartwatches - though many smartwatches are now also doing fitness tracking.  The fitness trackers include the Fitbit Flex's and the Jawbone UPs of the world.  And more recently Microsoft got into the game with the Microsoft Band.  I think there is a legitimate market for these things, but I don't really feel like they are mind-blowing or game-changing.

I'm still trying to decide whether smartwatches can be mindblowing or game-changing.  The first thing that I can remember being a proper smartwatch is the Pebble.  This was one of the first big Kickstarter projects, and is probably one of the biggest successes.  Although the display is not particularly fancy (it uses an e-paper display), it last for days without needing a charge (7, reportedly) and works with Android and iOS devices.  The compatibility and battery life are a plus, but the integration with more powerful pocket computers (aka smartphones) is superficial at best.

Deeper integration is where Android Wear and Apple Watch come in - they are designed to provide richer integration with their respective mobile OSes.  Android wear has been out for months now, and seems to be getting a bit better as more features are added.  Initially, the functionality didn't go too far beyond the sort of things Pebble could do - notifications, music controller (i.e., the phone still plays the music, but the watch can pause, skip, etc.), turn-by-turn directions, and the like.  Oh, and they tell time too.  Recent updates have solved issues with custom watch faces and added the ability to play music directly off the watch itself via Bluetooth.  There are also fitness capabilities built in - for example the Moto 360 (aka 270, if the flat tire of a screen doesn't quite do it for you) has a heart rate monitor built in.


But even though I'm firmly in the Android camp, these smartwatches don't quite do it for me.  I think they're an interesting concept, and I'm glad they exist, but they don't really fill a need that I have.  Everything that they do, I can do better with my phone.  I will grant that glance-able notification can be helpful (especially in situations where pulling out your phone would be socially awkward), but I don't really think that's worth going back to wearing a watch.  The other potential value add would be fitness tracking capabilities, but that's not something that I'm into.  And (while it doesn't apply to me at the moment, but would have in the past, and could again in the future), I know plenty of people who literally would not be allowed to wear a smartwatch into their workplace at Boeing.  Oh, and these things have to be charged at least every other day, if not every day.

There are other smartwatch platforms out there (Samsung has a couple of Tizen watches, among other players in the game) but none is terribly compelling.  That is, perhaps, except for the forthcoming Apple Watch.  I've read way too much about this thing since it was announced a couple of months ago, and I still don't quite "get it".  It seems to me that Apple is trying to do way too much with it.  For example, why on earth would I want to scroll through photos or read a map on a tiny screen on my wrist?  And don't get me started on the doodle feature, or the heartbeat-sending gimmick.  Some other smarter (or at least more respected on the Interwebs) people have different takes on the thing, and they could end up being right.  But I don't see the watch being someone's main computer any time soon, unless some unbelievable breakthroughs are made in battery technology and processor packaging.

What I will give Apple credit for, though, is creating the most fashion-forward entry into this product category (even though I'm a bit surprised at how bulbous the thing appears, especially for Apple).  They also created a very clever and functional mechanism for attaching/detaching the straps - like previous precedents (e.g., lightning connector), they eschewed compatibility with standards in favor of creating something functionally superior.  I can see them selling a lot of these things as fashion items, in addition to their simply being Apple products, even though the rumored price points for the gold version sound crazy to me.  And even though I tend to kind of root against Apple (for reasons that I might explain in a future post), I'm curious and excited to see what happens with this new product.
 


1 There are other current wearables that you can attach to a piece of clothing, but I don't really see many people talking about those.

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