On Internet Enabled Watches

This is a quick post to encapsulate a few thoughts I've been having about SmartWatches. In case you haven't heard, SmartWatches are going to be next year's "break-out hit technology," and have been for the last several years. It shouldn't surprise people I'm a little bearish on the SmartWatch concept as it stands today, but I think it's less to do with the market and more to do with specific limitations of existing technology.

In short, SmartWatches are a neat idea, but they need to hit reasonably low price-points with appropriate performance before we'll start seeing them strapped to everyone's wrists.

But first a little history... Wrist watches were apparently a thing as far back as Elizabethan England (who knew?) and were worn almost exclusively by women until the early 20th century. Men were apparently big fans of pocket watches in the old days. Which sort of got me thinking... are mobile phones the modern pocket watch? I can't tell you how many people I know who use their phones as watches. In the early 70's digital watches appeared and were almost immediately lampooned by Douglas Adams in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The first "Smart Watch" I can find reference to is the Hewlett-Packard HP-01. Look at this thing! Is it not a marvel to behold!? Seriously, I was a kid when this thing came out and remember thinking it was the coolest thing since sliced bread and David Cassidy combined.

Users of the HP-01 could use a proto-stylus to enter reverse polish notation programs to run on the device. Tracking fuel consumption on a small airplane was the canonical example the HP folks gave. Every second it would multiply elapsed time by your fuel usage rate and display how much fuel it thought you had in your fuel tanks. I once wrote a program on a HP-01 simulator to display the current mission elapsed time for the Pathfinder rover on Mars. Cool beans if you're tech geek like me, but with a price tag of $650, it's not a mainstream product.

HP-01 Smart Watch. Image from the Wikimedia Foundation
Handspring Treo 300

And for the second bit of history, let's look at the Palm Treo. This bad boy hit the stores in 2002 (though this is a picture of the Treo 300, which didn't come out until 2003.) Wait! Weren't we talking about watches? Why are we looking at a Treo?The Treo was the first successful PalmOS device that didn't need to be connected to your PC. Sure, the user experience of syncing with networked servers sucked and required additional software. But it was possible and a lot of people did it.

And now let's look at existing SmartWatches. This is the Nike Fuel. It's one of the new breed of wearable activity trackers targeting fitness peoples. Oh wait. Hold on. Nike couldn't sell enough of these to make it worth their while. Nevermind. (That being said, there was a pretty stiff after-market of these things after Nike axed the project. So it's not like there's zero market.)And here's the Pebble watch. It seems to be everyone's current favourite, despite offerings from Samsung and the rumoured iWatch waiting to destroy the market with it's Apple flavoured consumer electronics dominance. The pebble comes with "regular" BlueTooth and BlueTooth LE.

(Low Energy) so in theory, you should be able to pair it with your PC or you iPhone. But getting it to pair with your PC requires mad Python hacking skillz.And don't get me started about the Samsung offerings. Not only do they only pair with smart-phones, they only pair with a couple of different models of Samsung smart-phones. No thank you Samsung. I don't want my SmartWatch purchase to be useless if I drop my SmartPhone in the bathtub.So what's your point?

Thanks for staying with me as I bounced around between seemingly unrelated bits of consumer electronics footnotes. I guess what I'm trying to say is:

  1. These things are still pretty expensive. Nike had a customer base and still couldn't push these things out the door for $150.
  2. The experience of using a SmartWatch sucks. Not for us, of course. If you're reading this, you're probably one of the techno-elite who repartitions the logical volume groups on your Linux desktop for fun on the weekend. But if your have to go through the bluetooth pairing dance to get your watch to talk to your phone, you've probably lost half your market.
  3. People want to get at their data, they don't care that it's on their PC, on their phone or in the cloud. They want to turn on their phone and pull up a picture of their grand-kids. Or have their watch send fitness / movement data to a program somewhere.

But SmartWatches as a product class aren't a complete bust. That's one of the reasons I threw in the bit about the Treo. You don't see any Treos on the street anymore, but if you look at the iPhone and various Android phones, you see features that were pioneered by Handspring. And I think the SmartWatch market is where the SmartPhone market was thirteen years ago. We've had a few market entrants, but their experience mostly sucks and they're too expensive. Maybe next year we'll see the "Treo" of SmartWatches. Maybe it'll be Pebble releasing a slightly cheaper product with a better user experience.

What makes a better experience?

Users want their devices to "just work." You can probably get away with forcing people to do the BlueTooth pairing dance if you correctly communicate the security and privacy reasons behind pairing. But after that, they want their device to operate with zero additional complexity. What does this mean?

  1. For the sake of all that is holy, allow your device to pair with more than one computer. I have a cluster of PCs at the office and a cluster of PCs at the home. I want my SmartWatch to work with all of them. Don't artificially restrict me to only working with one PC.
  2. Consider making deals with WiFi Access Point manufacturers to put BlueToothLE support in their firmware. Many modern access points have USB ports and there are several BTLE USB dongles out there. Wouldn't it be simpler if your Access Point provided your BTLE dial-tone? In theory you could have a software component on the access point that relayed application layer messages to local PCs or cloud services.
  3. Put as much of the configuration on the big screen as possible. This should be a no-brainer, but we still see people making products that require you to use the small screen on the wearable device. No. Just... No.

Anyway... I hope this has been interesting to someone out in the world. Feel free to drop me comments via email or twitter. Special shout-out to @jonathanstark and @balmer who ignored my twitter-brand snarkiness to have as close to a real conversation as you can have about consumer electronics 140 characters at a time.