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Some thoughts on smartwatches (including Samsung GalaxyGear)

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I have been pretty vocal about the new smartwatches, including Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. In a conversation with Emily Chang on Bloomberg TV, I said that while Samsung has to be commended for taking a step forward, I am not going to be wearing one of the new watches, unless as an experiment for a limited period of time. I don’t really have a quibble with the watch concept, it’s just that I don’t think the devices that are available today are worth my time (no pun intended) or the money.

Smartwatches indeed have a role to play in the future. They are key component of our notification-driven personal computing fabric — one that will use the phone as the hub for all sorts of highly personal devices (also called wearables), as I explained in a conversation with NPR MarketPlace. However, in a conversation with ABlogToWatch, a wonderful watch blog published by Ariel Adams and friends, I elaborated some of my issues and challenges with the smartphones. Here are some of the key points around the smart watches.

  • %5B1%5DGalaxy Gear-006-Set1 Front_SixNone of the companies have come up with a killer mass market product.
  • Watches come with certain expectations and if something doesn’t match those expectations, we tend to feel a little let down. From that perspective, whatever we have seen hasn’t taken the history of watchmaking into account.
  • Watches are extremely difficult to design because they have to withstand the rigors of daily life, something designer Yves Behar pointed out during a conversation a couple of years ago. None of the devices released look and feel strong enough to withstand those rigors.
  • Watches have to look attractive and feel awesome on the wrist. The devices we have seen are more focused on software and internals and less on the aesthetics of a watch. You can’t underscore the emotional satisfaction of seeing a watch on your wrist, checking the time and feeling a little something — it is something that is simply hard to describe. The watch and its face have to be reassuring. I don’t see that in smart watches — just yet.
  • Smart watches haven’t done enough to replace the analog beauty on my wrist. You cannot forget that wrist-space is at a super premium.

There are other challenges — compatibility, battery power and an over-reliance on phones for basic functionality, but those are mere issues of features and again, I do think Samsung has done a good job. Samsung has and it will continue to create buzz around the category. That said, it will be a while before this market becomes a real mass market. %5B1%5DGalaxy Gear-008-Set1 Side_Six

26 Responses to “Some thoughts on smartwatches (including Samsung GalaxyGear)”

  1. If ‘smart watch’ is going to be a thing it won’t look like a watch. It won’t even be a watch. Telling time is becoming like spelling. We let our devices watch the clock now.

    Form follows function. The form of the watch-face – particularly its size – is strongly related to the simplicity of its function.

    Think smart ‘bracelet’ instead. Curved glass and an aspect ration that tends to wide-screen. There is more width real-estate up for grabs on the human forearm than there is height. And think ‘senses’ – the new chip architecture on the iPhone that sees the accelerometer processing moved out of the main CPU is interesting. Once you strap a device to the forearm the movement patterns are much more stable and predictable by the OS than a free-held pocket device.

    But even within the rubric of good design thinking, I share the skepticism. Where is the compelling utility? Where is the killer-app that proves there is a use case for this idea beyond duplicating what I already have, or creating a low-affordance cross-device dependency on my phone or bluetooth ear-dongles.

    I can only see niche – elderly folk who need a better health monitoring platform for example. When the iPod took off MP3 players were crap – they were limited and hard to use. When the iPhone took off phones – even smart ones and PDAs – were crap.

    I had no end of trouble with portable digital music, and mobile computing (as opposed to mobile communications) prior to Apple’s innovation.

    I really don’t have any serious issues doing anything a ‘smart watch’ has been supposed to do.

  2. Bill Geiser


    I agree with you. Smartwatch makers (including MetaWatch – I’m CEO) have focused more on the ‘function’ part of the equation and less on ‘form’. This must change for smartwatches to become more mainstream.

    The reality is we purchase and wear traditional watches for a myriad of emotional reasons of which telling time is simply a pretext. It’s my belief that our motivation for buying and wearing smartwatches will follow along similar lines.


  3. I hope the Apple watch will be very similar to the nest thermostat, albeit smaller. If they use sapphire for the crystal it would probably be pretty durable with a solid, machine milled bezel. I like the circular shape overall and nest does a fantastic job with it’s UI. Also, since iOS is going flat, that would be even better for a smaller, circular screen.

  4. Jason Rosenfeld

    Not to flog the horse, but I’d be curious to see if Jony Ives is inspired by iconic Dieter Rams designs again. Something like this:

    With a touch screen, you might not need a winding crown, but it could be used to invoke things like Siri, and imagine if they sold different crowns in different colors and styles.

    Just putting a weird idea out there. Expand that screen to the whole face, and it looks very “Apple.”

  5. Nissan has also unveiled its nismo smart watch that will allow the users to connect to their cars. However they are focusing more on connecting the users with their car rather than there smartphone. So there is a difference. It is a sub-niche and it would be interesting to see how this plays out in the future. Any thoughts?

    • Frank A NYC

      I like what I have seen from the Nismo watch (admittedly just a short video) and I like the car integration. I am a car guy and a watch wearer, but unless the thing on my wrist works as watch, I’m not wearing it. I think werables like fit bit and Nike fuel band are much better gadgets simply because they are not trying replicate every function of a phone.

  6. pabrookes

    I still feel the killer feature on a smartwatch—not addressed by any device so far—is identification and security. Proximity to an authenticated watch could be an alternative to phone-unlocking codes, passwords, keys, debit cards … all sorts of things.

    Notifications are obviously useful, but the screen is obviously too small to input any data and using voice commands is often impractical.

  7. “None of the companies have come up with a killer mass market product.”

    Did anyone really think Samsung would be the one to do it?

    If anything Samsung has proven that it can’t lead the market…

  8. The problem will always be battery power. You cannot put all the power you want in a device small enough to fit on your wrist with out having to triple its size in battery space.

    Look at Google glass, at least you can hang the battery at the back of the ear, no luxury in a wrist watch.

    I think the efforts so far have been very commendable. I doubt you will get much better for a long time.

    • Jason Rosenfeld

      I think that they have to make it last about a week. My friend recently gave me a pebble as a gift and it gets a week between charges. I find that pretty manageable but I am someone that doesn’t usually take off jewelry when I sleep, etc.

      The Apple watch could save power by only lighting up when it senses that you raise it up to your face to read the time. Also if you go off the clip nano from last year and remove the clip and fill that extra space with battery you might be able to reach a week.

      • Jason

        You make solid points — it is battery and also the lightweight nature of these watches which will be in addition to what I said about the aesthetics.

        It won’t be that easy, but I am looking forward to the next killer design.

        • Jason Rosenfeld

          I’ve had some exposure to this space, starting with Nike+ and graduating to the fuel band, etc.

          If Apple can recapture all of those fitness customers, grab the disparate “wearable” market (Jawbone Up, FitBit), wrap it with style, like Swatch, Coach (Coach already makes iPhone cases, anyway), they create an entire ecosytem again.

          1) Watch faces (I imagine you’d buy designer faces, or artist-based faces in iTunes), similar to the pebble
          2) Watch bands. A “made for iWatch” band that sells in the Apple stores with a licensing fee paid to Apple would be like cases all over again.
          3) Bezels/protectors? This seems the most iffy. But that might be one way to dress a watch up in diamonds, swarovski crystals, etc.

          Apple does a very good job of making stylish products. None of the current smart watches go after the traditional watch market, yet most traditional watches (especially feature watches) are genuinely difficult to use. I own a Citizen Eco-Drive, and I barely tap into the features. My wife recently spent $300 on a fashion chronograph, and there was a thick instruction booklet for time zones, stopwatch, timer, etc. Needless to say, it’s not used for much besides telling time. I doubt that the calendar is even set correctly.

          I think that Apple might very well come out with a core device that can then be dressed up in myriad bezels, bands and watchfaces. More like a Nano, but with a much more flexible OS and a bunch of features (in typical Apple mode, though, I’d expect some features to be held back for future iterations). The Nano line seemed to be losing steam anyway.

  9. One of the big problems is that some think like you.
    Smartwatches don’t have to look like a watch , it’s not practical to have a small square screen. This has to be a new form factor and it is supremely dumb to limit yourself to mimic a watch.
    As for wrist based devices having to look good ,sure but not that many people actually wear a watch nowadays, that space is usually empty and there is nothing to displace.

    As for existing devices they are all terrible. Hardware and software. On the hardware side the focus is to mimic a watch and that is too far from ideal. On the software side the focus is on notification and fitness/wellness/healthcare but there are at the very least 2 other core features that such a device should have and nobody is exploiting those yet.
    The Samsung device is a very poor attempt. First and foremost it should cost 100$. At 300$ is ridiculous .Apple could get away with 125-150$ but only because it’s fanboys are used to pay too much and they usually are people with too much disposable income for their own good.. Then the Gear has short battery life and no wireless charging or capacitors instead of battery for quick charging. The camera is just wrong ,albeit mildly useful. It’s not all that comfortable to aim with it and is low res.
    It only takes one decent product for the category to take off , remains to be seen when someone has that.

  10. Jason Rosenfeld

    I think that Apple will take a decidedly different approach to the Smartwatch.

    Think of an Apple-designed device that can snap into a wide range of bezels and watch bands. Like Swatch meets Pandora bracelets. And didn’t they just hire a mucky-muck from YSL? Paul Deneve could help them to line up deals with other fashion companies. Apple wouldn’t just redefine the smartwatch, they’d redefine the watch. Right now, you can’t buy a Tissot, Swatch or even Rolex brand band for another watch body, but that might change.

    Recent Nanos included enough hardware for a device that tells time, and while also including an accelerometer and processor that enables tons of fitness apps.

    I was given a Pebble by a friend. I find it very useful to have something glance-able, but the hardware is very limited. An Apple watch would be infinitely configurable.

    If you removed the clip from the old “watch nano” and filled that space with battery, you could probably come up with a device that lasts a week on a charge — like the Pebble. And, I’d imagine an Apple watch would conserve battery by lighting up only when you hold it up to read the time. The Pebble has an accelerometer, but isn’t smart enough. It will light up when you shake, it though. Apple would be slicker.