Does anyone remember encountering the television show Get Smart, or am I the only one? It was a comedy spy show from the mid-1960s revolving around bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart on a mission to protect the United States from foreign espionage. The running gag was always concealed telephones: telephone in a shoe, phone in a necktie, phone in a clock, and the slightly less ridiculous phone in a watch. The latter is no longer limited to the realm of ’60s gag TV, however.
Yes, this column is on smartwatches, the scourge of the tech industry zeitgeist. Apparently not getting the hint that wearing a watch that you talk to is more than a little ridiculous-looking, many manufacturers have been rushing to get their own entry into the smartwatch milieu. At the time of this article’s publication, there are nine such watches currently shipping worldwide, and more than 20 on the way in the next few years. Samsung and Sony both have notable entries into the battle, but they share the spotlight nearly equally with smaller start-ups like Pebble. My goal is not to review any one specific smartwatch (despite currently owning a Galaxy Gear), nor to comment on the current uses for such devices. Rather, I’m interested in whether they bring anything truly new to the computing arena, rather than just existing as very expensive $300 gimmicks.
First off, though, a little background. Smartwatches, like most things in the tech world, are evolutionary devices. The idea of having a watch that can do more than simply tell time has been developing since the introduction of the first digital watches in the early 1970s. Watches have progressively gotten more and more features including (don’t laugh—these were all revolutionary in their day): alarm functions, timers, stopwatch and chronometer functions, and some much more advanced features in the early 90s such as integrated calculators, the ability to store phone numbers as contacts, and the ability to set alarms for calendar appointments. The first device that I would truly call a “smart” watch, however, would have to be the Palm OS-powered Fossil Palm Watch. This was the first watch with a computer-like interface that bore more than a passing resemblance to the smartwatches of today. The Palm Watch could store contacts and calendar appointments, place calls (if synced up properly), and take memos.
The strange thing is that not much has changed since 1995 in this arena. Sure, design philosophy has moved on, on-board chips have gotten smaller, and battery life is significantly better, but the same general concept applies. Heck, some watches even have fewer features than the Palm Watch: The Pebble, for instance, has no data entry capability at all. It exists simply to push notifications to your wrist and control basic functions on the phone like music and media playback. Even the Galaxy Gear, which features a camera and communicates over Bluetooth Low Energy, still has a severely limited feature set. As of right now, smartwatches are mostly good for checking texts discreetly in class, which speaks volumes to both students and professors alike, I’m sure.
Does that mean that smartwatches are useless, though? I think not. I have a Galaxy Gear and my roommate has a Pebble, and we both agree that they add something to the smartphone user experience, if only a little something. As of right now, the smartwatch does bring a couple of new things to the table that you can’t quite get anywhere else: The ability to view texts discreetly as previously mentioned, access to very basic information like calendar appointments without having to take out your phone, and the ability to respond to texts hands-free when the phone would be inconvenient to pull out are all examples of the conveniences inherent in the smartwatch archetype. The bad press that has thus far surrounded smartwatches is merited, but perhaps shortsighted—smartwatches are only just now starting to gain mainstream popularity, and all the products currently on the market amount to little more than alpha versions of a potentially viable concept. The only problem? Alpha versions shouldn’t cost $200 to $300 a pop.
Still, give the manufacturers a few years to amortize the cost of production, and we may yet see the price come down. A $100 watch would certainly be reasonable given the current feature sets of smartwatches, which will do nothing but grow as developers become more convinced of the platform’s viability and growth potential. Meanwhile, excuse me … my watch is telling me to go meet Agent 99. Stay Smart!