Movies for years, especially sci-fi, have featured small portable touch screens. It's still kind of amazing with the iPad and others, we now get to have that technology. So what is next? Although the smart-watch label has been set now, it’s really about wrist communicators and wearable technology. Watch-like devices that allow us to get data, watch video and communicate. We’ve seen these for years too, most notably starting with "Dick Tracy," but how close are we now to getting our hands on, or in, one?
News this week leaked that Apple
is aggressively hiring new employees to work on a smart-watch product. Unfortunately, these same sources targeted a launch window of late 2014 instead of this holiday season. Apple has in some ways already prototyped some of the technology publicly with its iPod nano, a small device that many actually do wear on their wrist. There are also now rumors that Google, perhaps because of the Google Glass product, is also jumping into digital video wearable technology and working on a smart watch. Microsoft
is also reportedly working on what could be a Surface smart watch, sharing the branding of its struggling tablet technology. It may also be tied in to Xbox, since some of that team could be working on it. In fact many other major companies have been rumored to be working on some sort of smart watch or wearable wrist technology. Why so much interest? And why now? And why the wrist? Haven't wristwatches become nearly obsolete now with small, portable and feature-rich smartphones?
There could be potential in this, but perhaps not the way we envision it. When we hear the term smart watch, we think of, well, a watch. It then becomes clear that a watch would have too small of an interface screen to be useful. The first round of smart watches, such as the Pebble unit, funded by Kickstarter and now sold in Best Buy, are large and bulky. Having a device that is slim, with great design, and the same size as a traditional wrist watch, would be enticing. But having a device that is larger, bulkier, and well, nerdier, is only going to appeal to geeks.
The problem is these new devices need to move beyond just the geek culture. If they get stuck in a niche like that, they’ll never succeed in the mass market. Google may take a stab at it, because they do target to geeks, but aside from Android software, they have yet to really have a hardware device that reaches large market share. And they have tried lots of them. Microsoft and Apple will most certainly not be targeting any sort of niche anytime soon. They’ll want something that appeals to the masses.
These new devices also need to move beyond our expectations and what we think a smart watch can or should be. First of all, it may not be in the shape of a watch. Sure it will be worn on your wrist, but with recent advances in curved displays, it may be more like a wrist band, several inches wide. And maybe you won’t hit virtual buttons, sort of like a real watch, but it will be motion activated. And pulse activated. And light activated. These companies need to reinvent the watch, not just make a digital watch that runs apps. It will also be telling how these new devices interact with your cell phone. Pebble is tightly integrated into your iPhone or Android phone. In fact the main feature of Pebble is getting notifications from your phone via bluetooth. Will these smart watches be smartphone accessories, or will they operate independently?
These devices will also need to move beyond notifications. If all the watch does is save you a few seconds from taking out your phone, it will lose its luster fairly quickly. New methods of watching mobile video could occur. Streaming short shows or informative videos could make sense. Maybe you are learning to cook while you watch a wrist-based instructional video, leaving your hands free to work. Navigation will most certainly be part of the mix, Apple Maps, Google Maps, turn by turn directions, surely they will be there. Great for walking and maybe handy for cars. Voice activation? Another almost definite possibility.
In the end these smart watches need to solve a problem. But the trick is, what is that problem? Tablets made computers lighter and much more portable, while introducing key features that would have been difficult to do on a laptop. But what problems are smart watches solving? Yes, it is a better watch, but what if you are not into wearing watches? It could be packed with digital features, but how much more is the small screen going to offer that the phone in your pocket does not?
Clearly most companies need to make a move into a new market to keep profits humming along. Microsoft is seeing its PC market slowing down while Surface struggles for attention, and Apple and Google are seeing the smartphone market begin to level off. So everyone is looking for the next big market breakthrough. Is that big thing smart watches? Time will tell.
It’s a good bet that the company who produces it will be successful by changing our assumptions of what a watch could be. Apple has this in its wheel house, but it unfortunately takes months and years chiseling to perfection a great product, so it better move fast. Companies like Microsoft and Google, and many others, may be heading to the market quicker, and could have a shot.
It’s not a question of when we’ll see smart watches, it’s fairly clear we will. How they will be redefined, and how this redefinition accents our lives, is where it will get really interesting in the coming year.