The Current Crop of Smart Watches are Dead on Arrival

As smart phones become more prolific and revenues from new users decline as the market becomes saturated, the tech industry is desperately looking to be part of ‘the next big thing’. So far, these seem to fall in to two camps: wearables, and more recently, home automation. Alliances are starting to be formed and strategies starting to unfold, but it is very early days.

Smart watches are the most prominent example of the next wearable device around the corner. What I would like to share is my belief that the current offering of smart watches are not only completely pointless, they demonstrate a profound lack of vision and original thought by manufacturers.

A device needs to have a purpose. A reason for its existence. I don’t believe that smart watches manufacturers today have the faintest clue what the purpose of their watches is. Companies know that wearables are all the rage. They know that there are painful examples of companies falling behind by missing a trend and failing to recover (e.g. BlackBerry), so they are pumping out smart watches to ensure they get a piece of the pie. But does this pie actually even exist yet, and what purpose do these devices really serve? What benefit do they really bring? And are they any good?

As Michael Mace puts it:

What’s the compelling, broadly appealing usage that could drive adoption of a smart watch or glasses? So far I don’t think there is one.

So far, the vision, if you can call it that, that manufacturers seem to have is for smart watches to provide a ‘heads up’ of content from your phone, and to act as a sort of mini assistant on your wrist. They are laden with functionality inherited from their phone counter parts; they have large, appealing screens, and are brimming with connectivity, sensors and information. So what’s not to like? Well, how about the fact that they have terrible battery life, are enormous, and look horrible? Seriously, have you seen the LG G? If we ignore the lack of purpose/killer app for one second, consider that any one of these drawbacks in a normal watch would be enough to prevent someone buying one, so do the benefits of a smart watch outweigh having all three drawbacks? As Ben Thompson astutely points out:

To put it another way, in the case of a phone, the only decision to make is which phone to buy. When it comes to a watch or other wearable, though, there is another question that has to be answered first: do I even want to buy one at all.

The point is, these watches are not essential items. People can simply choose not to buy one, which is not an option for most people when it comes to phones. So the value and quality has to be that much higher, and I simply don’t believe the current breed of smart watches comes anywhere close to delivering that level of value for mass market appeal.

After all, simply showing email alerts on your wrist is at best a nice to have, and at worse a further digression from reality in an industry already trying to get you to spend more time focussed on its products than real life. Personally, notifications is a turn-off rather than a turn-on for me; I want to see something innovative and genuinely useful. The only company who’ve headed in the right direction are Withings with their year-long battery life smart watch, but this is still a basic activity tracker that syncs with their proprietary app. Is that the best we can do?!

And that’s where most of the the industry players fail so hard. They aren’t thinking of the future, they are just trying to compete in the present. Google, to its credit, is always pushing forwards but only on a technological (and endlessly creepy and self-serving) front – they are terrible at creating things of beauty, things that people desire. They exist in a commodity market where cheap sells. Watches do not exist in that market. They are well designed, last forever, and people expect to pay for that. Smart watches are not new. Remember the Casio watch calculator? Technological prowess is not enough – they have to appeal on a functional, aesthetic and emotional level too.

For all the companies that are playing follow-my-leader with each other and creating devices purely for the sake of ensuring those devices exist, of course Apple stands out as the company that follows its own agenda. Whatever your thoughts on them, you cannot deny that they don’t follow trends. Sure, they nick plenty of minor functionalities from competitors, as competitors do to them, but when it comes to the big products and the reasons for existence, Apple makes up its own mind and releases products it believes people will want. And this is what I’m hoping they are up to with wearables. I have no idea what they’re planning – a watch, a wristband, who knows, but I’m hoping beyond hoping that it isn’t just another me-too device. I want it to have purpose, be different. If we look at their current direction of home integration, I think it is safe to say that this device will closely tie in with your other home devices. Perhaps some form of control? What about if it had no screen at all? I’ll safely bet that it won’t need charging every day. The battery life issue cannot be overstated – only the hardcore geeks are going to replace their wristwatch with something that requires charging on a regular basis.

The current smart watch market is like a toy fair for geeks. For everyone else, these watches are just the tech industry’s way of practicing self-gratification. We need to see something with purpose that is exciting, innovative and truly forward thinking before this device category becomes mainstream and not just a fad for techies to have something to talk about.

Getting a bit pensive about technology

My last blog post was in June this year. That level of activity is not really good enough so I’m thinking about where this blog fits into my life these days. The problem is that I’m becoming more reflective about technology and social media, and their place in our daily lives. For me, I’ve become very self-aware of how much time I spend staring at my phone or tablet whenever I have time to kill. Be it on the tube, at home, on my lunch break at work, it is so easy to just get out my phone and absent-mindedly stare at an app until something else comes along, and it is really beginning to bother me.

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Apple’s TV solution is already here

There’s always been a lot of discussion about what Apple’s play for the living room would look like. Some people think they’ll build an actual TV while others think it will be some form of set-top box.

Personally, I think it is neither. I believe their TV solution is already here, and it is called, funnily enough, the Apple TV. You can pick one up for £99 and it will instantly let you rent movies and stream music and video from your iOS devices.

But this is just the start. One of the lesser-publicised announcements at WWDC, as part of the iOS 7 feature list, is support for 3rd party game controllers, by allowing them to be certified for use under the existing “MFi” (Made for iPhone) program.

This means that soon, you can use a console-like controller with an iOS device, and you can bet your bottom dollar that this will be rolled out to the Apple TV. All that is required is an app store for Apple TV and you’re set.

So, we have a £99 box that streams all your content and can play games. That to me sounds like a pretty compelling proposition.

The only bit I haven’t figured out is the hardware. Apple have spent the last few years slimming down the Apple TV, removing built-in storage in favour of streaming. However, to run apps, it will need storage, and to play decent games it will need beefier hardware, which will bump the price. There’s still a big gap up to the next level, so there’s room to increase the price, but it does change the dynamic somewhat.

Anyway, can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Some more great commentary on this by Austin Sweeney on his blog

How not to decide to move platforms

Andrew Kim, on his blog Minimally Minimal:

Last week, I went to a Microsoft Store and bought a Nokia Lumia 920. I frequently say that Nokia has some of the best looking phones in the market today and have also publicly shown my admiration for Windows Phone. However, these things have never convinced me to switch perviously. So the question is, why now?

Well, it’s iOS 7.

Andrew elaborates briefly on what he dislikes with iOS7:

To me, iOS 7 is sailing in a completely wrong direction. What needed to happen was a significant rethinking of iPhone but all we received was a facelift.

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The over-rated iOS 7 “design language”

Dan Frommer:

Feel free to gush about or criticize Apple’s new “design language” in iOS 7. For some people, that’s important. But for most iPhone users, once they get used to the new look — which is, obviously, a work in progress — their phone is going to work pretty much the same way it did before: Screens of squarish icons for apps that don’t really talk to each other very much.

My thoughts exactly.

A lot of prominent Apple bloggers and designers seem to be reading a huge amount into the ‘layered’ and ‘dynamic’ design of iOS7, citing things like transparent menus and parallax wallpapers as means to engage the user in an interface full of depth (as opposed to the “misconception” that it is actually “flat”).

Either I just don’t understand design at the same level they do, or I don’t need to, because to me, while these elements may be true, they are an excuse for the authors to focus too much on one discipline and ignore the bigger picture.

iOS7 does indeed herald a more modern era for iOS, but to try to imply that the visual overhaul somehow means iOS works better is a real stretch. As Dan says, there is no better app-to-app integration and no ‘opening up’ as hinted by Tim Cook recently.

For all the talk of iOS7 representing a more respectful approach to the proficiency of smartphone users, Apple is still treating its customers as ones unable to make their own decisions when it comes to the overall experience they should have from their phones.

Entering the world of manual photography

Perhaps as a January depression-busting technique, I bought myself a new camera. I’ve always enjoyed photography, especially nature photography, but have only ever invested in point-and-shoots (my last camera being the Sony DSC-TX7). Initially I intended to buy a dSLR such as the Canon 110D; i.e. an entry-level dSLR that would allow me to take good quality photos and learn the ways of manual photography. However, I got swayed by the size of the Compact-System-Cameras (CSC), namely the Sony NEX-F3, which is the one I settled on.

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