Wearables will not replace smartphones … yet

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When talking with Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky at CES, one thing he said stuck with me: Pebble’s vision is not to replace smartphones, but to remain a peripheral. It’s a controller or remote for your smartphone – nothing more, nothing less.

The company prides itself in how simple and “out of the way” its wrist-mounted notification device is.

Frankly, that’s one of my favorite features of Pebble. I set it up and it just works, reliably … for days and days on a single charge. When I get a text message, Hangouts message, email, or social notification, Pebble buzzes and previews the notification.

I’ve also set up some Tasker profiles which launch corresponding Pebble apps when I open specific apps on my phone; and from Pebble, I control my music. It works amazingly for music controls. My phone can remain in my pocket or across the room, and my music and volume controls are always in the same place – no fidgeting around to find an in-line headphone control or feeling around in my pocket to find the volume rocker.

pebbleappstoreThat’s the extent of what I expect Pebble to do, and I’m totally satisfied with it.

Today, my hands-on with the long awaited Pebble appstore went live. The appstore perfectly compliments Pebble’s wishes and direction for its wearables platform. With nearly 1,000 apps available, most of which are watchfaces, a large portion of the Pebble appstore is filled with tools, utilities, fitness trackers, and remotes. These remotes range from remote shutter buttons for your phone’s camera to apps that control your LG TV from your wrist. Oh, and if you happen to have Phillips Hue light switches installed in your house, there’s a Pebble app to control the lights in your house, directly from your wrist.

And the newly announced partner applications, such as Foursquare, ESPN, and Yelp, have brought some even more useful services, straight to your wrist. In essence, Pebble version 2.0 is taking all the simple, lightweight tasks you typically perform from your phone and putting them directly on your wrist, just a few button presses away at any given time.

More so now than before, Pebble is a dedicated, always-on, wrist-mounted shortcut device with a select few tasks to handle.

That said, there is a natural progression which is quickly taking hold: doing more from your wrist.

It started with Sony’s SmartWatch and SmartWatch 2, then Samsung took it one step further. Galaxy Gear, for instance, tries to be much more than just a notification device. It comes equipped with a microphone, camera, and a speaker. You can make and receive calls from it, send preset text messages, and take pictures.

While the Gear is still very much a peripheral, Samsung has done its best to replicate the smartphone experience in a watch form factor. The result is a 1.63-inch, wrist-mounted infant smartphone which has some growing left to do.

galaxy gear mk7 pocketnowminuum-gearIt’s telling of where Samsung may try to take the Galaxy Gear in future versions: a fully-fledged wrist-mounted smartphone. Think about it. What does Galaxy Gear lack, at least from a hardware perspective, to be a standalone device? A wireless radio and a way to take calls with a little more privacy than speakerphone mode. The software would need some fine-tuning, and it would need a more reliable form of input than voice, which Minuum has shown us is possible.

Theoretically, the concept is entirely possible, and I’m confident that if anyone were to pursue it, it’d be Samsung. The Galaxy Gear is so close, as is.

But let’s exit this hypothetical vacuum where the Galaxy Gear would work and take a gander at some of the gaping flaws.

One of the most prevalent actually comes from a quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook on the topic of tablet/ultrabook hybrid devices. The convergence of two products is almost always possible, and in some cases inevitable. But on an earnings call in April 2012, Cook said:

“I think, Tony, anything can be forced to converge. But the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user … you wouldn’t want to put these things together because you wind up compromising in both and not pleasing either user.”

A standalone smartwatch is nothing but compromise.

First, in battery. The Galaxy Gear is already quite bulky, yet its battery is only 315mAh. Sure, the display is notably smaller than a full-sized smartphone display, but the constant radio signal will take its toll on a like-sized device’s stamina.

gamingInput, even with a keyboard like Minuum, would be tiresome for constant input. There would be typos aplenty, and many headaches induced. Look how long it has taken us to get accustomed to soft keyboards on 4-inch to 6-inch displays.

And the entertainment aspect of a smartphone would almost have to be left to another device, like a tablet. Watching videos, reading, or playing games are all impractical on a tiny display, yet making the display larger only increases the size and lowers the practicality of a wrist-mounted device.

No one is saying a standalone smartwatch isn’t possible. LG even made a sort of proof of concept watch phone back in 2009. In short, it was ahead of its time, overpriced, and better on paper than in practice. But several companies are entering the wearables space, and a similar device may soon resurface.

And that’s why I’m forced to agree with my colleague, Michael Fisher, on the not-so-distant future of wearables. Michael says,

“People who want dumb phones today want simplicity – a tendency unlikely to change in the near future. Given the right implementation, a kind of ‘no-frills watchphone’ could provide that simplicity, along with the added convenience of extra portability (presuming, of course, the whole talking-into-your-wrist thing ever becomes socially acceptable).”

Given time, however, people will inevitably take the smartwatch concept to the next level, as well as the full scope of the rest of the wearables category. And at some point in the distant future, a wrist- or head-mounted smartphone replacement could exist. Joe Levi and I share very similar thoughts on how such a device could … be. It builds on the ever-appealing concept of the personal area network (PAN) we all are so intrigued by. Joe elaborates:

“A smartwatch, for example, could contain everything needed to be a smartphone: a touch-screen, cellular radios, battery, GPS, etc. But it could omit other things like the camera and other more ‘smartphone’ components. This would allow them to be smaller (appropriate to the screen size), and quick. The SoC wouldn’t need to be as high-powered because the screen is so much smaller, and the battery wouldn’t need to be as big as it would in a smartphone as a result.

No speaker? Bluetooth headset. No camera? There’s a wearable for that, too, in the form of a camera pendant, Google Glass, or the Samsung equivalent.”

For those who want more than a basic phone experience, but still don’t need the frills of an entertainment device, just a communication device with Internet capabilities, this decentralized network of task-specific devices could work exceptionally well. A head-mounted display could keep your need-to-know information in a heads-up display, and you could take to the watch for more intensive tasks.

gaming

Multimedia consumption, of course, could be supplemented with a small tablet, which a lot of people currently carry anyway.

Would it be for everyone? Hardly. But such has been the evolution of technology for some time. Smartphones weren’t for everyone at first either; neither were tablets, home PCs, gas-powered vehicles, or even regular ol’ cell phones back in the day.

It’s easy to throw your hands in the air, groan like a crotchety old dude, and discredit a concept. But it takes effort to look forward and see how a technology may advance and become useful in the future. Engineers and developers are highly intelligent and clever. Only a fool would doubt what they will be capable of in just a few, short years.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+