Has the smart watch's time finally come?
Rumours of an Apple watch continue to swirl. But is the future of smart computing really on our wrist? Rhodri Marsden finds out.
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 27 February 2013
I carry my smartphone in the front left pocket of my trousers. It's there right now. As a fidgeting, twitchy type with an overwhelming need to feel "connected", I must reach into that pocket to check the phone's screen dozens of times a day. (I haven't actually counted, but the tally would probably be pretty alarming.)
The idea that I require a stronger bond with my phone is faintly ridiculous, but that's precisely what's being facilitated by a small but fast-growing sector of the technology market: the smartwatch. Strapped to your wrist, easily visible, and either functioning as a phone or acting as a wireless bridge between you and the phone nestling in your pocket or bag, the smartwatch may well become our new go-to information source; a surreptitious glance-at-wrist would replace the old reach-into-pocket.
A step forward? Many of us evidently think so. Whether it's down to the novelty factor, the 1940s sci-fi appeal or a genuine desire for a multi-function wristwatch, two of the biggest successes on crowd-funding platform Kickstarter have both involved wristy technology. A wrist-mounted case for the iPod nano, created by design firm MNML, was the first to nudge the $1m funding mark on Kickstarter at the end of 2010 – but this was dwarfed by the $10m raised 18 months later for the Pebble e-paper watch: a highly customisable app-based wristwatch that wirelessly receives information from your iPhone or Android phone.
The understated pitch and attractive design had donations flooding in; the first units shipped at the end of January, and cautiously positive reviews have signalled that this may be the embryonic shape of things to come. It's certainly prompted some copycat crowdfunding pitches, and intense speculation over the wrist-based ambitions of industry giants such as Apple and Samsung.
But we've been here before. Samsung launched its first wristwatch phone, the SPH-WP10, way back in 1999; at the time it was the smallest and lightest wireless terminal ever produced, had a talk time of 90 minutes, and was confidently predicted by Samsung to become a "big hit with the youth market".
History tells us that it wasn't. In 2004, Microsoft launched its Spot watch, a device which received information via FM radio frequencies in return for a subscription fee of $59 a year, but it also foundered and the service was finally pulled about a year ago. Christmas 2010 saw Harrods stock a phone-on-your-wrist called the Swap Rebel; once again there was a flurry of press incorrectly predicting the next big thing.
Over the past couple of years, Sony Ericsson's LiveView, the InPulse watch for Blackberry, the Sony SmartWatch, Motorola's MotoACTV and the Casio G-Shock GB-6900 have all offered Pebble-like Bluetooth communication with your mobile phone; the mass market, however, has remained stubbornly impassive. But a surge of interest over the past few weeks in "wearable technology" (including Google's hi-tech specs) appears to have put the smartwatch back up for the public vote. It has another chance.
Whether we'll ever take it to our hearts, however, seems dependent on our changing attitudes to the wristwatch in general. The potential obsolescence of the watch as a timepiece has been much mused upon; as we become overwhelmed by time-telling gadgets, the watch's primary function has been neutered. A 2010 survey found that people under the age of 25 were twice as likely to have jettisoned their watches as over-25s, and any value they have these days is largely aesthetic; cheap, gaudy watches as decoration or eye-wateringly expensive watches as status symbols. More fashion than function, we require less and less from our watches. But the smartwatch demands that this attitude be reversed – that we become as impressed by ingenious apps as we might be by multi-axis tourbillon movements in a Swiss watch.
Many companies are counting on this happening. From the Cookoo ("the watch for the connected generation") to the Basis Band (which doubles as a pedometer, sleep tracker and heart-rate monitor), from the space-age Metawatch Strata to the more austere Martian Passport, from the oddly-named I'm Watch to the feat of miniaturisation that is 18-year-old inventor Simon Tian's Neptune Pin (four-band GSM, Wi-Fi, USB, GPS and a 3.2 megapixel camera), tons of investor cash have been poured into this sector.
The recent Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, too, saw many forays into the world of wearable technology – including, notably and ineptly, the Starfish watch. It promised mirroring – a display duplicating that of your phone – but that promise evaporated after scrutiny and questioning by attentive technology writers.
If Starfish highlights anything, it's the growing band of "wantrepreneurs" who are keen to grab a slice of Pebble's action. Unsurprisingly, it's developments at Apple that are causing the most excitement. Rumours and speculation from employees past and present, fuelled by gadget websites and seemingly confirmed by the recent hiring of certain personnel at Cupertino, indicate that Apple may well be working on a so-called "iWatch", and possibly in a curved glass design – not that the company would ever say one way or the other.
The "killer app" that Apple has at its disposal, of course, is Siri, the voice- recognition tool built in to the iPhone's operating system, iOS. The ability to issue digital instructions to a reliable device that's permanently tethered to your wrist could, just perhaps, make up for all the other drawbacks one immediately associates with the smartwatch – the chunky profile, the small screen...
"There's definitely a use case for a smartwatch," says Michael Gartenberg, analyst at Gartner, "especially if you think of it as just another connected screen that's worn instead of carried. The key to mass adoption will be creating something that can be considered a good watch first and foremost, and overcomes today's limitations for things like charging." But Gek Tan, analyst at Euromonitor, sees the smartwatch as niche, noting that "there's hardly any interest on the part of watchmakers to dabble in this area".
Perhaps those watch companies sense that even if the technology works, the smartwatch's battle to reach the wrist will be a social one. Yes, the pocket watch successfully made its way on to our wrists 100 years ago – although not without disgruntled gentlemen complaining that they'd "sooner wear a skirt than a wristwatch". But for smartphone functionality to make the same move will require society to accept us checking our watches every minute or so. As a fidgety man, I'd say that's going to be an uphill struggle.
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