I'm an avid runner. I love trial running and last weekend I found myself buying a replace for my GPS enabled watch, you know, to track runs, hikes and this kind of stuff.
Almost 3 years ago I bought myself a Garmin Forerunner 610. I remember being really excited about it. Among other reasons, I was excited because it sported a touch screen display, which was the main marketing point at the time and something you wouldn't find in other watches.
After 3 years using it regularly I can tell that the touch screen was a bad idea to begin with: the little display made the experience confusing because some gestures couldn't be performed as intended and overall, the touch based interaction in such small device wasn't as great as I thought it would be. Moreover, Garmin didn't go all in in with the touch thing and maintained the classic button interaction as well, which made it even more confusing. It felt like that watch wanted to be someone else, it lacked personality and empathy.
With that experience in mind, I started the search for a new watch. First thing I noticed was the market had changed so much in those 3 years and I sensed that it was about to change a lot more in the coming months. What started as a simple search for a niche device (a GPS watch to track your runs I'd argue it's not a mass market device, although recently it has gained a lot of adopters), ended up being a discussion about how technology is getting closer to (all of) us.
The race for bringing technology closer has just started. Right now, none has a clear picture of how it should be done and the market is approaching it from different angles. For example, many have agreed that the wrist is a great place to put this device, because we have always sported watches and we are used to. Although you could argue this point, it may have some sense.
But even if that's true, there are several different approaches to the matter: armbands to track your activity, smart watches that try to put a smartphone in your wrist and, somehow, I found that also this niche market of GPS enabled watches was shifting to the "smart" area with addition of BLE connectivity and activity (not running) tracking.
But the big boys are already lining up behind the smart watch and those watches will probably get more attention from the media. I don't know how we are going to interact with these devices in the near future, but I'm pretty sure it's not going to be none of this by any means.
Smart watch, as we know it today, is putting an smartphone in your wrist, and this is a terrible idea for several reasons:
- Intrusive: even with a smartphone it's a nightmare to control what notifications hit our lock screen or which buzz or sound they'll make... it has become so complex with that many apps. Bringing technology closer doesn't mean by any means that my watch is going to buzz any time I receive an email. Just think about it, it's crazy. Right now Google Wear devices haven't a clear way to filter or control those, so it's chaotic.
- Battery: we already have to plug a smartphone every day, but this is a tradeoff we agreed on because of the great benefits that come along by having a computer on your pocket all the time. Putting an LCD screen to a smart watch, right now, equals having to charge it every day. So there it goes yet another device you have to care of when it's not even clear if it's going to help in any way.
- Features: this smart watch hype is just about to shrink a smartphone and put it on your wrist. With all the features and hassle that comes with it. And it's all wrong. We've already been here a few years ago with the first attempts of "smart" phones, before the iPhone came along. This wearable thing, in whatever form it comes, it has to go beyond the smartphone. It has to reach the places the smartphone can't. It has to take advantage of it's closer position to the body, the sensorial capabilities and its always listening mode. A combination of those things have to play together to enhance the mobile experience in areas like health, connectivity or accessibility. None of those things are about buzzing your wrist every time you receive a message, maybe not even having a display.
- Fashion: there it goes the funniest part. Getting closer to the body means you are overlapping with fashion and therefore entering an area of subjectivity and irrationality that tech hadn't touched before (at least not at this level). When it comes to fashion form doesn't follow function, high heels are painful, but most girls doesn't complain if they accomplish their fashion facet. Tech has never entered this area and I sense that it would be extremely difficult to convince someone to put on a smart watch on if it doesn't appeal to his fashion.
For those reasons I don't think smart watches as we know them are getting anywhere. They feel misplaced the same way my Forerunner 610 did. Like any technology that is ready to take off, it needs early adopters to be excited and neither the LG G Smartwatch nor the Samsung Gear Watch has anybody excited. Despite being a clear flop the new ones have been already announced: now are rounded (wow, really?) or getting 3G connectivity... I cannot see how this solving any of the issues I stated above.
On the other hand some niche markets like runner GPS watches can also drive attention to the matter in a different way. This technology is converging with activity tracking within a health frame (which makes a lot of sense). So what it used to be a niche, maybe is able to get some early adopters (who where already familiar with wearables) on board or at least drive some awareness to the market.
Particularly, I found the smart band approach quite more intelligent. A device like a Fitbit Flex is able to complement the smartphone in a way that any Google Wear device can't. Moreover this bands batteries last 10x times and put together more relevant information for the user. This is definitely a more thoughtful (initial) approach, they don't sport dual-core chips or 512MB of RAM, but who cares. People care about wearing this things, feeling great and secure when they show up to a party with one of this things on. Small brands like Fitbit or Jawbone at least, have understood this and they address the issue in a really clever way.
I do not know how these things are going to play out in the long run. Apple (as always) might have something to say the next month. But again, it's not going to be a smart-phone-watch.