Posted by Matt Egan 28 January 2014
Why smartwatches could be great: they're not pocket watches
Wearable tech is the big buzz phrase of the moment. Alongside headline grabbers such as Google Glass you may have noticed people starting to wear activity trackers such as the Fitbit, Misfit Shine, or Nike Fuelband. Gadgets that sit on your wrist and quantify in how much activity you have partaken. Meanwhile smartphone makers in particular are keen to sell the idea of so-called 'smartwatches': in effect smartphones that sit in your wrist. (We test out the best activity trackers.)
Samsung launched its Galaxy Gear watch to great fanfare (and no great success) and even Apple is rumoured to be launching an Apple iWatch. (With Apple the rumours are almost as important as the facts - if people are talking about an iWatch it means there is interest.)
Such hype doesn't necessarily mean that smartwatches are a good thing. Hype-without-substance usually means that someone is trying to sell you something. And so it is with smartwatches. Almost everyone who wants one owns a smartphone now. What growth there is lies at the less-profitable bottom of the market, with budget phones such as the Lumia 520 and the Motorola Moto G. So the makers of high-tech portable devices would like to sell you a new device. A new device that ties you even more to the smartphone they already sold you.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't some value in smartwatches. In fact, I think a wrist based computer that offers broadly the same functionality as a smartphone could be great - especially if it pairs with your phone.
Smartphones are feature-filled pocket watches
Consider this: smartphones have largely replaced watches. You carry them with you at all times, and they tell you what hour of the day it is. But in addition they connect you to the world around you and offer myriad features that your watch simply can't replicate.
But in taking us forward smartphones are also a retrograde step. Because unlike your wrist watch you have to pull your smartphone out of your pocket to view it. The ergonomic brilliance of placing the face of your watch on your wrist has to date not been replicated by your smartphone. So as great as they are smartphones have taken us back to the era of the pocket watch.
E-readers became popular only when they could offer an experience as good as that of reading a paperback book. Smartphones blew straight past that phase because they offer so much useful and fun functionality. But the ability to add-in wrist watch convenience to the functionality of your phone would be a good one. Great, even.
I wouldn't ever expect a smartwatch to replace a smartphone. That's not what I am saying. It's unlikely you'd ever want to type out an email on your wrist. But consider the benefits if you could pair your phone's functionality with a wristwatch: you'd never have to fumble in your pocket to answer a call or change tracks. You could tell the time without without opening your bag or reaching for your inside pocket. And you could do it all without draining your phone's battery by using the display, or advertising the presence of seven-hundred-quid's worth of smartphone hardware, just waiting to be stolen.
The price will have to be right, and the user experience as good if not better than using a phone handset itself. But smartwatches could well prove to more of a hit than a fad. Because they will take us out of the pocket watch era of smartphone usage. (For the alternative view, read our piece 'Why smartwatches are stupid'.)