The case for smartwatches

Computers, smartphones, tablets—eh, they’re all old hat to us by now. Sure, we love our technology, but as tech fans, we tend to get passionate about whatever’s new. The new hotness in computing is wearable technology, and the bulk of the excitement these days is focused on smartwatches.

The Pebble, Kickstarter’s most successful project ever, is shipping now. Rumors of an Apple iWatch abound. But to some people, the question remains: Why would you want to wear one of these things? If you already own a smartphone, what’s the point of strapping on a watch that connects to the device you carry in your pocket already?

It’s a fair question. But my Pebble is due to arrive any day now, and I can’t wait. And I expect to preorder an Apple-built watch, should one ever ship. Here’s why.

Time will tell (time)

Like many folks, I stopped wearing a watch at some point after I began carrying a smartphone all the time. Reaching into my pocket, tapping a button, and then seeing the time in a giant font is fairly quick—though admittedly slower than glancing down at a wristwatch. And dropping the watch meant that I had one fewer thing to remember.

But it’s annoying, too. I have to slide out my phone, potentially implying to the people around me that I’m rudely ignoring them to check my messages, when in fact I’m really only rudely trying to check the time. And odds are good that if I pull my iPhone out of my pocket so that I can check the time, a notification about an interesting email or tweet might further distract me.

So one key reason I’m eager for a smartwatch is that I want to tell the time more subtly and inoffensively again. And if I’m going to wear a watch, it might as well be a smart one.

That smarts

It’s easy enough to shut my iPhone up when I need silence—whether for sleep, focus, or movie watching. In other situations, however, I enjoy the instant notification my phone offers me when things I care about come in. I like to know when texts or iMessages arrive; I’m happy to see Twitter direct messages as they come in; I want to know when my opponent finally plays a turn in Words With Friends.

That said, if I hear my phone bleep from across the room, or if I’m in a dark room (watching television, say, or lying next to my sleeping spouse in bed), I’m disinclined to grab my iPhone. These are all perfect times, however, to glance at the watch on my wrist to see the notifications that are coming in.

At dinnertime, my family prefers that smartphones be kept away, but sometimes urgent work email comes in while I’m at the table. I believe that glancing at a watch for a few seconds would be far less disruptive than grabbing the big, bright iPhone.

With notifications, the joy of a smartwatch seems not unlike the joy of a Kindle: I can read just fine on my iPad, but the electronic-ink Kindle presents an environment that’s nearly distraction-free—no angry birds or status updates can distract me while I read a book. A smartwatch should afford a similar level of forced focus. Yes, I may be briefly distracted by its vibration and its display of a new notification, but I should be able to dismiss that notification and move on without being further distracted by the many tempting features my iPhone offers.

I also occasionally hand my iPhone to one of my kids. If I hear a text message arrive, I can use a smartwatch to determine whether it’s a message that can wait, instead of unnecessarily interrupting my child’s playtime to do so.

All along the watched hour

A smartwatch offers several other perks as well. Some of them may, admittedly, be unique to me. For starters, since childhood I have long craved—for reasons I can’t explain—an analog watch with digital hands. Smartwatches can easily offer that feature; the Pebble, in fact, does.

A Bluetooth-connected smartwatch may also help you find your lost smartphone, if you know that the phone is nearby but can't spot it. You can probably press a single paging button on your watch faster than you can launch an app to find your missing, muted phone.

And there’s also the fact that smartwatch technology is kind of cool. Just as most smartphones gain features thanks to new apps and operating system updates, so too can a smartwatch—whose largest innovations are in software—evolve over time. While I’m intrigued by the promise of smartwatches that merely offer copies of notifications my iPhone receives, I’m even more eager to see new features and functions that only smartwatches can deliver.

It seems like a no-brainer that in the near future, well-connected smartwatches will also offer the functionality of smart pedometer wristbands like the Jawbone Up, Nike Fuelband, and upcoming Fitbit Flex. With such a feature, your smartwatch could log the steps you take each day—which, for me, would mean one fewer gadget on my person.

Who knows what’s next? I didn’t think I needed an iPad until it came out; now it’s a device I use every day. The same is true of TiVo and even my trackpad. Technology doesn’t always need to solve a problem I already have. Sometimes, new technology instead poses a different question: How can I possibly live without this, now that I know it exists?

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