Struggles Facing The Smartwatch

Posted by Miles Weaver

In the early 21st century, we’ve gotten used to certain things our forebears could never have dreamed of, that could only be the work of fiction. The Star Trek tricorder? That’s your iPhone. The video call from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Skype was invented 35 years later. The kind of heads up display seen in The Terminator? Thank you Google Glass. There’s a lot of futuristic stuff that we’ve come to take for granted, but one thing still hasn’t managed to catch on, even though it has been predicted by fictional works that go back as far back as Dick Tracy in the 1930s: The smartwatch.



Smartwatches enter the market in a big way

In 2015, the smartwatch has arrived. Apple has finally released their flawed, if promising first generation and of course there is Android Wear. Samsung were the first to dip their toe in the water with the “worthless” Galaxy Gear, which sold terribly and pushed the South Korean giant back to the drawing board. They’ve recently tried again with the improved, but still flawed Gear S, running their own OS, Tizen, while LG and Motorola lead the charge for round faces with the LG G Watch R, Urbane, and Moto 360.

So what has held us back from the smartwatch utopia that we’ve been dreaming of for so long? Well there are two primary issues have continued to stand in the way of wearable success: the watch and the smartphone.

Wait. The watch? How can the watch be holding back the smartwatch? Well, it’s quite simple really, an issue that - so far – relatively few smartwatch makers have attempted to tackle. The watch’s primary function, indeed the only reason it was invented in the first place, was to be able to quickly and easily tell the time. That’s it. In the ensuing centuries, it has evolved into something far more just a timepiece, it has become an stylish accessory through which a person can express themselves and their tastes.

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What's the time?

One look at Samsung Gear S, and it becomes apparent that quickly and easily telling the time is not the primary function of the device. Similarly, all concepts of style or fashion have been tossed out of the window in favour of utilitarian, bulky, tech-heavy design, though I’ll admit the screen is a thing of beauty. The watch is not like a smartphone, tablet or even the television; these classes of devices that have only been in existence for decades, not centuries. The watch has been with us for half a millenia, it is an object that unconsciously becomes part of the way we know the world. We don’t notice watches when they’re done right, but they stick out like a sore thumb when they’re done wrong. That’s where many smartwatches are right now, badly designed pieces of horology. The primary function of telling the time is not given appropriate deference, and up until recently the device has been looking like ugly technology with very little style or substance. This trend is slowly reversing itself with the Apple Watch, the Moto 360 and the Urbane, but I think there is still a long way to go.

The smartphone hurdle

The other hurdle the smartwatch needs to overcome is the one presented by the smartphone. Initially, I’ll admit to not making much sense as the smartwatch is merely reflection of what’s happening on the smartphone. But therein lies the point – for the most part, all the smartwatch does is alert you to what is on the smartphone. Yes it’s very nice to be able to draw an emoji or send a heartbeat, but the pull of the mobile is still strong. In its relatively brief existence, it has altered our behaviour, to the extent that the reach down to the pocket upon vibration or alert chime is much more intuitive than looking at your wrist (where you expect to find the time). That’s a tough habit to break, and while there are many tech minded people that want to do that, the vast majority of the purchasing public are quite happy just the way things are right now. Behaviour change is hard so by merely pushing notifications, news summaries, weather updates, and journey times, the smartwatch isn’t offering enough for the man on the street to change his behaviour. Though, of course, one cannot discount the Apple effect.

To this, we also need to consider the fact that the smartphone has had over half a decade to perfect its OS, we can’t expect the smartwatch to get things perfect right out of the box. The understanding of what users want, how they engage and what their real life requirements are cannot be user tested into existence. This knowledge can only be discovered in the real world, when millions, not thousands of people are using a device in their regular lives.

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The smartwatch’s future is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is a cautionary tail. We’ve reached a point in media where if something is not a smash hit from right launch it must be discounted, discredited and disowned, when in reality, it takes time to build momentum, just as it takes time to build something that works well as an entirely new class of device. Industrial product design needs to meet software engineering at the exact right point, which is never easy to do - remember, even the original iPhone was a bust. The smartwatch, as a class of device, has a lot of potential to streamline and change the way we engage with our connected world, but makers must start thinking of it as a watch first and foremost, and follow on with the software from there. Iterative design that gets distinct functions right, rather than trying to nail everything from the outset would be preferable. The more things that go right, the more momentum builds, and the more people will get on the bandwagon as the ancillary features that they prize come online.

You’re watchmakers, guys, take your time.

Miles Weaver PikselMiles Weaver is Piksel’s Innovation Lead, overseeing the strategy, development and management of concepts stemming from Piksel’s Innovation Programme. Miles is an avid commentator on the digital TV revolution speaking regularly at industry events and being published in The Guardian and Read/Write. Connect with him at @MrMilesWeaver




Topics: Future Tv, connected devices, Analysis, Internet of Things, IoT, Smart watch, Device Strategy, Devices