Smartwatches won't click with consumers until they grow Google Now–style brains

We geeks just never learn. Despite the troubled history of smartwatches—I submit Microsoft’s SPOT and Sony’s aptly named SmartWatch—the tech world has fallen in love with them all over again. Samsung’s Gear announcement is just one day away, and tech enthusiasts couldn’t be more excited.

Maybe it’s because the novelty of smartphones and tablets is wearing off, and we need something new to satisfy our gadget lust. But just as likely, the core concept of wearable computing is finally starting to make sense, as technology shrinks and we rely more and more on our devices to guide us through the physical world.

There’s just one problem: The technology requirements of an ideal smartwatch don’t line up with current realities—and until these devices grow some adaptive, Google Now–like brains, smartwatches will continue to break our hearts.

A killer smartwatch needs to be more than a smaller smartphone

Let’s take a look at why the first attempts haven’t been very popular.

Pebble on wrist

Today’s smartwatches are basically just proxies for your phone’s existing notifications, along with a handful of watch-friendly apps. Pebble, for example, lets you know when you’ve received email, a text message, or a phone call—a great convenience when extracting your phone from your pocket could be unsafe or socially awkward. These are nice features, but they’re not enough. If you don’t wear a watch already—and fewer people do these days—it’s hard to justify strapping on a Pebble.

“You’re going to have to deliver a significant amount of value, an amount of value beyond just notifications or alerts, to overcome the amount of resistance people have to wearing one of these things on their wrists,” says Nick Gould, CEO of New York–based design firm Catalyst Group.

To become more useful, smartwatches need to be, well, smarter.

Imagine a watch that lights up when it’s time for you to leave for your next appointment. Or how about a watch that doubles as an electronic airline boarding pass, or as your loyalty card at Starbucks. A truly smart smartwatch would warn you about traffic on your commute, and suggest places to go when you’re out on the town. It could also leave a persistent reminder on your wrist when your spouse sends you a message to pick up some milk. And you could tap a button as you’re leaving work to let the family know you’re headed home.

Google Now's intelligent notifications would be a killer feature on a watch.

If all of this sounds like a cross between Google Now and Apple’s Passbook, that’s no coincidence. These applications are actually a better fit for for watches than for smartphones, where they’re too easy to miss or ignore.

Google Now’s warnings and alerts are useless if they’re buried among a pile of other notifications, or if you’ve parked your phone is in your pocket or purse. Passbook becomes a cognitive burden when your movie ticket or boarding pass competes for attention with everything else on your phone. And a truly smart smartwatch wouldn’t senselessly bombard you with a constant stream of alerts. It would act as a smart assistant that knew when to get your attention, and when to leave you alone.

“It is more subtle, it is more hierarchical in terms of the information it provides,” Gould said. “That starts to get to a place where the aesthetic objection can be overcome.”

That’s not to deny the importance of smartwatch apps. There are lots of ways smartwatches might serve as useful smartphone substitutes—for handling things like NFC-based payments, voice search, dictated messages, fitness tracking, remote media playback, and even security authentication for other computing devices. Features like these will make smartwatches more useful, and some of them are already available on today’s watches. But simply mimicking the functionality of a smartphone won’t be enough.

“Instead of trying to create Dick Tracy’s phone, you’re actually just trying to create Dick Tracy’s smart assistant,” says Avi Greengart, research director of Consumer Devices at Current Analysis.

Google Now? More like Google Later

iOS Passbook boarding pass
Apple Passbook functionality would also be awesome in a watch.

So we’re looking for a smartwatch that can constantly slurp up information and serve it to us at just the right times, preferably on a color touchscreen, preferably sleek, preferably long-lasting, and preferably affordable.

Sorry to be a downer, but we need to keep our expectations in check.

Unless (or until) Google offers a proper interface for watches with tight Google Now integration, hardware makers will have trouble turning their watches into full-blown virtual assistants. And though Samsung may be able to fill in some of the gaps with its Passbook clone, dubbed Samsung Wallet, that service is young and at this point has only a handful of partners.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google still have plenty of work to do on their own virtual assistant technologies.

Siri's dumber than she looks and doesn't play nice with Google Now.

Google Now is good at predicting information you’ll need—data like traffic alerts and weather reports for your upcoming trips—but its support for loyalty cards and boarding passes isn’t as broad as Apple’s Passbook. For its part, Apple’s virtual assistant Siri doesn’t behave like Google Now at all. Siri responds to requests for information, but it doesn’t try to predict what you need to know. Between the two companies, the makings of a killer, watch-friendly virtual assistant are in place, but the odds of Apple and Google working together are nil, which means they’ll need to put all the more time into creating their own systems.

One related point: Though smartwatches with NFC technology could someday allow you to pay for items with a wrist tap on a payment terminal, retail stores haven’t widely adopted the technology. NFC’s failure to launch is a whole other story, but it’s been a challenge for tech companies to get into the game due to competing interests among wireless carriers and payment providers.

Beauty versus battery

Current smartwatches more closely resemble iPod nanos with wristbands than sleek, stylish tech items.

A successful smartwatch would need to solve more than just software issues, though.

The crucial hurdle for smartwatch makers is battery life. Teardowns of current devices like Pebble and Sony’s SmartWatch reveal that the battery hogs a lot of space inside. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve multiple days of battery life on these devices without some sort of compromise, and current smartphones aren’t exactly sleek and stylish.

Pebble opted for a low-power, black-and-white screen to save power. Sony’s SmartWatch 2 uses a transflective LCD with less-than-vibrant color. Samsung will reportedly use an (inflexible) OLED screen in its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and the watch’s build will likely be just as bulky as the Pebble’s. And while the ramifications for battery life are unconfirmed, a report by AmongTech claims that the Galaxy Gear will last for only 10 hours on a charge.

Current-gen smartwatches like the Pebble and the MetaWatch Frame use black-and-white screens to prolong battery life. Bleh.

Therein lies the problem for a company like Apple: Should it push forward with a clunkier watch that has a gorgeous display, and hope that people are willing to recharge it every night? Or should it opt for a less attractive screen and longer battery life? Or should it simply wait until more-power-efficient technology is available? Maybe that’s one of the “things to solve” with wearables that Apple CEO Tim Cook has alluded to.

Bruce Tognazzini, a partner at the user-experience-oriented Nielsen Norman Group, points out that Apple holds a patent on wireless charging that can power devices through the air. But unless Apple can offer that technology in the near future, the company may have to make a tough decision between desirable battery life and beautiful color display.

“I certainly would not be particularly interested in a watch that I had to take off every night, but I don’t think it would kill the market,” Tognazzini says. “I just think it’s a big trade-off.”

No one watch to rule them all—yet

Johan Loekito
This unofficial 2009 image from designer Johan Loekito shows how a Samsung smartwatch could look, though the actual Galaxy Gear reportedly rocks a color OLED screen.

Predicting future sales of tech products is always risky, and it’s even trickier in the case of wearable technology. But consider this bit of perspective from Canalys: The research firm expects smartwatch shipments to jump from 500,000 units this year to 5 million next year, “as a new generation of devices from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and others are launched.”

5 million sounds like a huge number, until you compare it to the 712 million smartphones that shipped last year. The road to mainstream adoption of smartwatches is likely to be long, as watchmakers deal with technical hurdles and work out the kinks. Some of the companies mentioned by Canalys may not get around to tackling smartwatches until late next year, or maybe even the year after that, and we’re likely to see a lot of experimentation as the category takes off.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a killer watch that the mainstream is going to be using,” says Suke Jawanda, Bluetooth SIG’s chief marketing officer. “What I’m excited about is there’s going to be a watch for everybody.”

He may be right in the short term, but odds are that one of the tech industry’s titans—most likely Apple or Google—will eventually come along with a category-defining product that makes the whole idea click, the same way Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and iPad did. And when it does, expect it to pack a level of truly smart functionality similar to what we see in Google Now today.

Just don’t expect to see that smartwatch any time soon.

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