This Is Not A Smartwatch

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Confession: I have a few storage boxes in my loft that contain old, but barely used, gadgets. Stowed away, still in their boxes, as if waiting for the right time to be brought out like unloved Christmas decorations.

Ignoring the generations of well-used feature phones also put in storage (thanks to the data locked up inside their tiny brains) many of these devices are gadgets that never lived up to their promise. Which may be why I haven’t been able to throw them out. It just seems wasteful since they never had a useful life.

Among this collection there is even a smartwatch. Or rather a Bluetooth watch, to give it its correct title. The smartwatch of its day, if you will.

At first glance all these boxed-up gadgets look like they’re just waiting to be plugged in to finally start paying back the debt they owe for being made in the first place. Some even look a bit glamorous, gathering an air of mystery thanks to the pelting pace of technology evolution. But pick up yesteryear’s rejects and it soon becomes clear why they’re in stasis: they weren’t good enough to be useful. This is where the mystery stops.

Here’s what passed for a smartwatch in 2008 – made by the now defunct Sony Ericsson joint venture:

mbw-200

The Sony Ericsson MBW-200 Bluetooth watch was only ever an accessory to a mobile phone – and a limited accessory at that. It’s a timely reminder of the pitfalls of building a smartwatch, as the tech industry’s heavy hitters scramble their fighter jets to scream towards the next must-have wearable gadget.

Sure, Pebble has proved there’s a market for some kind of wrist-mounted gizmo that connects to your smartphone and extends the experience of carrying a pocket-sized computer around with you all day every day — but boy it better be worth it.

The MBW-200 wasn’t even good at being a watch, let alone acting as sidekick to the mobile phone. It was top heavy and chunky, so that rather than sit pleasingly on the wrist, it felt like it wanted to swing around it like a high bar gymnast. While its tiny OLED screen, resting forlornly at the bottom of the watch face, wiped a third of the markings off the dial. Aesthetically it was unbalanced and, when not displaying anything, gave the watch a vacant appearance. An ugly and uneasy conjunction of old tech and new.

(It should be noted that the MBW-200 was a range of ladies’ watches – so these devices were even smaller than other SE Bluetooth watches, leaving very little room on the dial to accommodate a screen, hence its squashed situation.)

I reckon a two-inch curved screen is the largest pane that could comfortable fit on my lady-sized wrist, without pushing into bangle territory — which illustrates a key design challenge for today’s smartwatch builders: wrists not only offer very limited real estate to build on, the plots aren’t all sized the same.¬†Ergonomically the MBW-200 was already teetering on the brink of what’s acceptable everyday wrist wear — and its circular watch face was less than one-and-a-quarter inches in diameter.

Squeeze in a SIM tray, and could an iWatch actually become the fabled low-cost iPhone?

Another ergonomic problem with this early attempt at a smartwatch were its (physical) buttons, five in all, lined along the two strap-less sides. Being small, stiff and awkwardly placed, they required two fingers to be engaged in a pincer squeeze when pressing each one. One to push the button, the other to create an equal and opposite push from the other side to stop the watch from being shunted down your wrist.

A touchscreen watch wouldn’t necessarily need any physical buttons so shouldn’t have to contend with such anchorage issues. But wrist-mounted touchscreens face other challenges — from how to protect such a large screen from the bumps and scrapes of everyday life, to how to fit in a big enough battery to power a rich, colour touchscreen display without building a chunky, ugly mess of a watch again.

Hardware aside, the absolute worst thing about the MBW-200 was its ‘smart’ functions. They just weren’t smart enough to make it worth wearing.

Setting aside the hassle of having to make sure watch and phone were properly paired each time you strapped the thing on, the OLED screen was ludicrously tiny: a mere 0.7 inches x 0.15 inches. Lengthier data (such as phone numbers) had to be scrolled to view, rather than being visible all at once. Not exactly helpful if you’re trying to figure out who’s calling. Incoming text messages were announced by a vibration to get your attention, and a text message icon appeared on the screen. This was fine except the actual message itself was not displayed. The screen didn’t indicate who it was from, either — both pretty huge constraints on usefulness.

The watch’s other main function was to allow you to reject or accept calls via two of its physical buttons. Rejecting a call had some value – say if you wanted to stop your phone ringing and didn’t want to go to the trouble of pulling it out of your bag/pocket to do that. But having a button to accept a call but no way to take the call without getting the phone out anyway (unless you already owned and had previously paired a Bluetooth headset with it and happened to have it to hand/in your ear)? Well, that feature could actually feel pretty dumb.

Will an Apple iWatch or a Samsung Galaxy watch or a Google Android watch let you talk directly into your wrist when someone calls you? And include a speaker so you have to lean in close to listen? It might have to in order to avoid being annoying, but that’s more kit to fit in and more stuff to power. Not to mention a new type of behaviour to think about: people talking into and listening to their wrists. (Albeit, that doesn’t seem so odd when you consider Google is trying to get people talking to their spectacles.)

And if you can make calls on a smartphone, could it actually work as a standalone phone? Squeeze in a SIM tray, and could an iWatch actually become the fabled low-cost iPhone? It’s a stretch but maybe a smartwatch has to be that useful to be, well, useful enough.

Five years is an ice age in technology terms so some of the MBW-200’s features weren’t as dumb as they look now. This watch was made to marry a dumbphone after all. And hey, some of what Sony Ericsson was doing five years ago, Pebble is doing now – which perhaps goes to show that despite a human appetite for a wrist-mounted computer, building something that genuinely works in that coveted, curved, convenient but constrained location is a harder problem than a lot of companies realise. Because a lot of companies have tried to make a smartwatch and made cupboard trash instead.

When I was given the watch, after some initial excitement at the concept of being able to screen calls and texts, the reality of its limited usefulness vs. the hassle involved with charging, pairing, wearing and actually using the dumb thing soon sunk in. And, well, to cut a long story short, this not-so-smart-watch was put back in its box for good.