By Joe Levi | July 1, 2013 7:32 AM
Your watch is undergoing a dramatic transformation as the battle for your wrist is beginning to heat up. Timekeeping has been of great importance over the centuries. What started as large, ornate boxes in high-class homes and businesses gradually miniaturized to mantle-top pieces, then wall hangings, and eventually to something that you could tuck into your pocket.
The first pocket-watches showed up in the 1500′s, and became popular in America in the 1830′s. Wrist-watches didn’t begin replacing gold-chained pocket-watches until the 1920′s, and electronic watches didn’t arrive until the 1950′s. Watches regulated by quartz crystals didn’t even arrive until 1969.
Since then watches have continued to evolve, some gaining new features like stop-watches and timers, moon phases, altimeters and barometers, and even compass and GPS features.
Today there’s another class of watch: the smartwatch — and it’s in the middle of an identity crisis. What should a smartwatch do?
Dick Tracy, the fictional P.I., had some pretty advanced gizmos, one was a futuristic “2-way wrist radio”. Should a smartwatch include voice communication features?
I own some FRS/GMRS radio wristwatches and put them to use the last time I took the family to Disneyland in California. I’ve even gone hands-on with a cell-phone bundled into a wristwatch. Neither the radios nor the cellphones performed very well. I don’t think building all the communication bits into a watch is a good idea, they’re just not big enough to handle everything that a phone or even a simple radio needs.
Some then jump to a Bluetooth-connected speakerphone as an ideal feature for a smartphone to implement. Would that be an appropriate use of a smartwatch?
Some have even managed to cram an entire PDA inside a wristwatch, complete with touch-screen. The utility of a PDA inside a package that makes it difficult and inconvenient to use? What a great idea! (If you couldn’t tell, that was sarcasm just then.)
You can’t fault creative thinkers for trying, but no one has gotten a PDA-wrist-watch right.
I’m throwing this one in the middle. Why? I’ve actually owned a couple smart-watches that don’t tell time — not reliably anyway. The screen on one particular device would go to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, requiring you to push a button it to see what time it was. What’s worse, it didn’t know what time it was. It had to be tethered to your smartphone via Bluetooth to know what time it was. That wasn’t a problem as long as your phone was nearby (and powered up)… but the app didn’t run as a service, so when the OS cleaned up apps that you hadn’t used in a while, the app would be killed and your watch wasn’t more than an ugly wristband. Not cool.
The first duty of any smartwatch should be to tell time, and do so in an easy to read, always on, informative manner.
Remote Control / Media Controller
Some would argue that a smartwatch should be a universal remote control for your TV, or a means to adjust the volume or change the track you’re listening to on your smartphone. I’ve got to be frank, the former seems a bit silly to me, but some people will arm-wrestle you to to death if you say a smartwatch shouldn’t be able to control your television and stereo. Being able to control what’s playing on your smartphone, well, I do that regularly, so that’s got to stay, right?
Touch-Screen vs. Buttons
Moving away from “what it does” to “how it does it”, we enter the great debate over touchscreens versus push-buttons.
The first day I got my Pebble smartwatch I knew how to use it. It felt natural. It was a watch first, with “smart” stuff secondary. That’s not to say it doesn’t do “smart” well, it does. The folks behind Pebble just made sure that it took care of all your watch-wearing needs first.
When my then-five-year-old son hopped on my lap to see what all the fuss was about, the first thing he did was swipe at the screen. He was honestly frustrated when it didn’t swipe up and down or side to side. I knew how to operate a watch with buttons because that’s how watches from my youth worked. Today, however, our youth are being indoctrinated to touch-screens and swiping almost from birth.
The Perfect Smartwatch
It’s somewhat unfortunate that there are so many things that a smartwatch could do that the question of what it should do is so murky. To complicate matters further, the “how” to do those things gets thrown around to confuse or frustrate us even more.
Until we know the answer to all those unknowns we’re going to continue to see smart-watches stumble. Some will be great, others will be laughable. Nevertheless, it’s going to be quite a while until we see the perfect smartwatch.