The arrival of Samsung’s long-heralded Galaxy Gear has cinched it – for better or worse, smartwatches are now a thing. There’s just one problem – no one’s really worked out what the hell a smartwatch actually is yet.
Unlike other pundits across the internet, I don’t think smartwatches are ultimately pointless or doomed. They have a place, it’s just one that has to be clearly defined, with a real purpose – something that just blatantly hasn’t happened to date.
The Galaxy Gear, let’s be clear, is far from the first smartwatch. That dubious honour probably goes to Microsoft’s SPOT watches, weird radio-controlled machines that received weather reports via FM radio, and looked pretty butt-ugly.
Then we’ve got LG’s GD910. That was less of a smartwatch and more of a real phone-within-a-watch. I remember Stephen Fry showing his off to a packed auditorium shortly after its launch, to a multitude of jealous oohs and aahs – probably the best praise that device ever got, since it sucked hard.
Nowadays, we’ve got more mature smartwatches, like the Pebble or Sony’s Smart Watch. Rather than being standalone devices like LG’s flop, they serve as a second screen/remote control for your full smartphone, ditching the full set of cellular radios and Wi-Fi in favour of a lower price and almost half-decent battery life.
This evolutionary process is somewhat familiar. Remember what smartphones looked like before 2006 (which is, yes, when the first iPhone was launched)? Probably not, because although the technical hardware capability was there, manufacturers had no bloody clue what a smartphone should look like.
Mostly, they were mini PCs. Tiny, bezel-heavy things that ran Windows Mobile, could do “everything your laptop can”, and as a consequence are now only used by the UPS man to sign for your parcels. No one really knew what smartphones were for, and rather than trying to work it out, companies crammed more and more features into them, and left it up to the user to work out what they were actually going to use mini-Excel and a shitty resistive keyboard for.
That’s why the first iPhone was such a success. The hardware was almost behind the curve for the time – no 3G! – but Apple knew what it was actually for.
The classic iPhone ad (a masterpiece in how to sell things, by the way) was a simple 30-second clip, showing a real person using the iPhone to do real-person things, without a single reference to capacitive screens or high-spec processors. People saw that the iPhone would be useful -- they wanted it, and they bought it.
It should be a dashboard for your phone. The most useful thing a smartwatch can do, in my opinion, is let you handle notifications from your phone without having to take it out of your pocket.
It sounds so deeply trivial -- and hey, it probably is – but not having to yank your phone out every time it buzzes, just to delete a message telling you all about your mis-sold PPI, is handy. This is the most under-rated aspect of smartwatches.
Then, you’ve got the remote control functions. Your phone isn’t just a conduit for messages, it also plays music and feeds you directions. If you can control that stuff without having to pull your phone outta your pocket, again, that’s good.
This extends to stuff like checking the weather or having a wrist-mounted dashboard when running, too. The Moto X, Google’s (sorta) latest attempt at a smartphone, puts the emphasis on not having to unlock your phone to look at messages or perform basic tasks. A smartwatch should serve the same function – the more time the phone can stay in your pocket, the better.
Many will say that smartwatches are pointless. They're not entirely wrong. No-one needs a smartwatch, just like no-one needs an iPad. It does nothing that your phone can't do. But for a few things, it does them so much better that it's worth the cost.
Photos. Games. Talking into it like you’re Dick frickin’ Tracey scrambling Thunderbird 2. If a picture’s worth taking, it’s probably worth yanking your phone out of your pocket, and framing properly. Ditto games, and stuff like social networking. If you’re going to spend more than five seconds interacting with a screen (read: playing a game or reading your friend’s Facebook status), it’s always going to be worth pulling out your luscious 5-inch smartphone to do so.
And the talking-to-your-watch thing just makes you look like a dickhead Secret Service-wannabe.
There are two other important things that smartwatches need to do: not make you look like a cock, and, please, for the love of god: have a battery that lasts for more than one day.
Not looking stupid is probably the most important thing, because we’re accustomed to watches being decent-looking status symbols, in a way that phones are only recently starting to become. Anyone who thinks about their appearance for more than three micro-seconds in the morning is not going to wear a watch that looks like it came from a cereal package. That’s something no smartwatch has got right yet, but will become rapidly easier as the manufacturing technology gets better.
The battery life is equally important. We’ve already got enough stuff to charge, and people are used to not having to think about their watch.
Just like with smartphones, the support of developers (to write apps, and make their apps compatible with devices) is key. With different ecosystems already springing up all over the place – for Sony’s system, Pebble, and now the Galaxy Gear – winners are inevitably going to end up being chosen.
Wearable computing might be all the rage, but there’s a limit to how many next-gen ‘innovative next-gen Flipboard-for-your-wrist computing platforms’ one poor developer can support.
For all the reasons listed above – and mostly because it costs two-freaking-hundred-pounds – the Galaxy Gear smartwatch is not going to take off. Even the cream of the crop (in my opinion), the Kickstarter-darling Pebble, isn’t quite there yet.
But ditch the glitz, the glamour, the cameras and those Fischer-Price wristbands, and you might just get something that real people want to put on their wrists.
So give the hardware time to mature, and, most importantly, let the companies figure out what the hell they’re trying to actually make, and smartwatches could well be next year’s must-have accessory. Just don’t throw your Rolex out quite yet.
Top image credit: Watch from T3.com