From here to iWatch: Who will nail the Smartwatch concept?

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It’s taken us a while to get to this stage but we’re now at the point where nearly every major mobile manufacturer is either rumoured to be working on a smartwatch, has expressed interest in the concept, or even has a model already on the market (Samsung and Sony). In turn, this means we now hear some interesting smartwatch related news almost every week. The internet is filled with chatter about where smartwatch tech is heading, how viable it is and who is likely to champion the technology as a leader in the space.

Smartwatch devices so far have been greeted with plenty of playful curiosity but none have yet got it right –– no one has yet nailed the concept. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but a few in particular crop up repeatedly and stand out more than the rest.

For one, their dependency on a compatible smartphone, usually via a Bluetooth connection, and for another their limited battery life compared to conventional watches – ie: smartwatches seem to last at most a day, compared to regular watches which last months at a time.

Another common criticism is that millions of people now no longer even wear watches, for many the smartphone has replaced the watch as the timepiece of choice, at least as far as convenience is concerned.

Why, therefore, should they invest in a smartwatch?

It’s a perfectly reasonable and valid question. Even Apple’s Tim Cook, while expressing his interest in wearables and “the wrist” at WWDC 2013, spoke of the difficulty in figuring out how to convince users to want to wear a smartwatch and how to make it a compelling product.

Clearly, this is why an iWatch is yet to emerge.

And yet, if you look at the people who do still wear conventional watches, we are by-and-large looking at the luxury consumer goods market. I have little doubt that many watch-wearers do still consult their wrist for the time – they may as well, after all – as many online commentators have argued.

But I think underneath this the primary motivator in owning something like a Rolex or Omega is that it’s a prestigious luxury “jewellery” item, the fact that it tells you the time is of secondary importance.

This?…

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Or this?…

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To date, none of the released or rumoured smartwatch devices have offered something which caters to this aspect of watch ownership. You can argue some of them might look “nice”, but none of them look like what is expected of an expensive “jewellery” watch.

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I think that in order to meet the expectations of luxury watch owners, smartphone makers are going to need to collaborate with existing premium watch manufacturers to come up with something viable. In many cases these companies have hundreds of years of expertise, ignoring that and instead investing considerably in your own manufacturing to make something which isn’t up to the same standard seems counter-productive, even reckless, and ultimately doomed to fail.

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A good comparison is how mobile is segwaying into the motoring industry with in-car systems. No phone-maker is under any illusions it can make its own car, so they’re collaborating with car manufacturers to get their solutions inside existing models. This is exactly the line that should be taken with smartwatches.

Clearly, this would be insane…

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On the subject of form over function, I’m not for one second arguing that smartwatches, or even watches for that matter, shouldn’t have any functional value. They are, by nature, at least a dual-purpose item and should continue to be, otherwise they’d just be bracelets. But I do think that with current offerings not only are manufacturers not getting the aesthetic and build as a prestige item right, but they’re needlessly overstretching on functionality too and missing the mark by a wide margin as a result.

Whenever a new smartwatch comes out and I explain to a friend or colleague that it can do calls, texts, emails and other smartphone-like functions, the reaction is usually a positive one at first, but the inevitable question is always “does it work without my phone?” and the answer, so far, is always no. The reaction then changes to one of virtually complete disinterest, and to me that’s very telling.

I can understand why manufacturers have so far developed smartwatches to sync with existing smartphones. Being cynical, it makes them more money as the devices require each other for the desired experience – so that’s two purchases rather than one.

But it is also the easier option. I’ve previously argued that Google should’ve made Google Glass smartphone dependent rather than cramming all the necessary tech into its frame, because a Bluetooth link is simply easier, but Google Glass, to me at least, is a very different kettle of fish.

I think first and foremost, mobile makers entering into the watch space need to appreciate that the watch functionality –– telling the time –– needs to be a priority (as well as more premium design), and 25 hour battery life for the timekeeping function isn’t going to cut it.

One option I can see is compartmentalising the smartwatch to an extent, having the timekeeping separate from the smartwatch functions and powered by a separate battery so that, even if your smart functions run out of juice, you can still get the time.

But a more sensible option would probably be to dramatically cut down on the smart functions overall and keep only the ones which are essential and which can be optimised with longer battery life.

While the idea might be nice, I don’t think in reality many users are going to be watching video content on their wrist, so with that in mind it could be advisable to ditch flashy screens and instead opt for something which is good at displaying information (texts, the time, emails etc.) but also has good battery life, such as the e-Ink panels we’re used to seeing aboard eReader devices. At the moment using e-Ink would mean sacrificing colour, but companies such as Liquivista (recently acquired by Amazon) are working on colour e-Ink technology.

That sort of change would mean less processing power is needed, but could also mean sacrificing things like video calling, which is a shame, but perhaps a necessary one.

Again, it might be fun to pretend to be James Bond with a camera on your watch, but I’m not sure anyone’s going to really miss it if it isn’t there.

Handy, certainly, but the battery life must’ve been terrible…

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Getting rid of the camera also frees up space in the chassis for some independent connectivity options – a SIM slot, phone antennae, 4G and 3G modems, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, severing the invisible umbilical cord between smartwatch and phone.

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I have a harder time deciding whether the smartwatch should try to take on the same music player role that smartphones have taken from MP3 players. I can certainly see the argument for it as a true smart device, but at the same time it potentially requires more storage unless it relies on streaming. Speakers on such a scale are inevitably going to be lacklustre for anything other than notification alerts, meaning there’s a reliance on headphones and Bluetooth ones at that, unless people are fine with getting their watch arm and head tangled up in a headphone wire.

Regardless of how it’s done, however, I think the winning manufacturer in the smartwatch race is going to be the one which focuses on a few elements and ensures it gets them spot on. That manufacturer would need to recognise that smartwatches are, like regular watches, a luxury product in a different way to smartphones. It would need to ensure long battery life and reliable timekeeping, and to focus on making a watch that’s independently capable with access to calls, texts, emails and mobile data without pairing to a phone.

Most importantly of all it shouldn’t get carried away stuffing every smartphone function we’ve seen in the last few years into the watch form factor – because it simply won’t work. A different approach is needed.

This kind of limited scope but careful and refined product design is exactly the sort of thing Apple’s been doing for years with several of its devices, which took a very different approach, when they emerged, to what other manufactures had tried before – I’m thinking mainly of the iPod and iPad here.

I daresay, however, that any other manufacturer could also do the same thing.

To recap, the essential components to a successful smartwatch are, I believe:

  • A beautiful design on the same level as existing luxury watches
  • Battery life which is as long as existing watches
  • Reliable timekeeping (linked with battery life)
  • Built-in antennae, 4G/3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • Smart functions to include: Calls, texts, email and web browsing

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