You Don’t Want An iWatch

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Proposing that entrenched sub-cultures should try something new is dangerous. Going into guitar forums with a new idea is a prospect fraught with peril for anyone who dares move beyond the six-strings-and-a-dream mentality of guitar purists. The same goes for folks who pitch wine in a box at a vintage tasting session and those who might want to add some new technology to a classic car. In short, the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it crowd will tell you to get out of here with your fancy new concoction.

Sadly, I’m a member of that dour, nay-saying crowd when it comes to smart watches.

As reviews percolate up for the Pebble and other smart watches and the rumors swirl about a potential iWatch, I’ve been thinking about what a real smart watch will require and why we’re not quite there yet.

First, remember that wristwatches are the epitome of micro-engineering. Barring a few duds along the way, clockwork and then quartz wristwatches do one thing amazingly well – tell the time – and we humans are accustomed to using them in that particular configuration. Some watches show elapsed time, the phases of the moon, and the like but, for the most part, your basic Timex Ironman is literally the epitome of the art and the art hasn’t changed much in five centuries. That’s why entrepreneurs like the space: they think they can do better.

And they will be able to, but not yet.

Why are standard watches so good – or, at least, so well-engineered? They are compact, do a few jobs very well, and last a long time on their own power. They are also dead simple and are easily usable without much investment of time or effort.

Current smart watches assume that the brains of the operation rests solely in the phone. This argument, while solid, forgets that the watch isn’t an accessory, it’s a standalone device. At some point the watch will be separated from its brain and the results can be disastrous – the time could change or the watch could run down, becoming useless. A watch that cannot tell the time is not a watch, it’s a bangle.

This means that a watch that lasts about a week on one charge is not usable as a daily-wear watch. You can be as careful as you want about maintaining the charge but at some point you will revert back to a quartz/mechanical solution or no watch at all. This, in short, is my primary problem with current smart watches.

Consider sports computers, for examples. Devices like the Nike+ watch and various models from Suunto and Polar assume the user will strap on the watch only during a particular activity. Wearing a Suunto GPS watch for any length of time, while fun, isn’t possible. There are watches that you could wear while hiking and the like, but the battery is the main consideration when it comes depending on these devices in a life-or-death situation. I would argue it can’t be done yet.

So how are we supposed to trust the Basis watch, for example, a watch designed to stay on the wrist for weeks at a time? You’re going to have to pull it off at some point to charge it and at some point the user will just stop putting it back on.

The small, postage-stamp sized screens of most watches is also a detriment. While I could definitely see the value in a heads-up-display like Google Glass constantly flitting in and out of my vision, a buzzing beeping watch that requires Tamogotchi-like attention sounds like a chore and not a user-interface improvement.

Smart watches also have very few compelling features. While I don’t want to use this as an example (it’s clear the author, Jonathan Greene, likes his watch), I find this telling:

Native apps – watch faces are just toys. Where is the augmented display for sport data? The navigation queue from maps etc. The only one I’m aware of is for the Lockitron connected lock. I’ve supported that project as well and look forward to seeing it come to life.

You will obviously retort that the platform is still nascent and that Pebble can’t be expected to make compelling apps a few weeks after launch and I would agree, to a degree. A solid platform needs compelling applications. The promise of the smart watch is fine but, in actuality, it will take a while for this promise to come to fruition. By that time, I suspect, the mass of Pebbles will be lying at the bottom of a dresser drawer.

Could Apple beat this malaise with an iOS-powered iWatch? Maybe, but I doubt it. First, it would require more processing power than, say, an iPod Nano (an iPhone’s processor might be overkill) and a battery that would last months. It would need a readout that can show the time at a glance and a low-power wireless connection to the phone that will stay connected without issue for weeks. It would need to be water and shock proof and look good on the wrist. In short, it has to beat a G-Shock or your Dad’s old Hamilton mechanical.

When looking at a smart watch I would propose something like the Butch Test – can this watch retain its value as a timekeeping instrument and item of value even after spending seven years in a place unconducive to a delicate object? If it can, it’s a watch. If it can’t, it’a fad. iPods of a certain vintage, for example, are still usable, as are some computers. My Palm watch, amazing in its day, is a cold hunk of metal and my SPOT watch rests forlornly on a clipped branch of smart watch evolution. Most watchmakers abide by strict standards of usability, ruggedness, and quality. Few smart watches, on the other hand, are rugged, strong, and useful enough to match the utility of an “uncomfortable hunk of metal” on the wrist.

I want smart watches to exist. I really do. But right now, with the technology we have available to us, I’m still not convinced we’ve cracked the problem.