We're in the middle of a smartwatch craze. Inc. contributing editor John Brandon explains what it's going to take to get him to wear one.
According to IMS Research, the field of wearable tech is booming. They predict there will be 170 million wearable devices sold by 2016. In many ways, a smartwatch makes sense: You can glance down and see a text message, a meeting alert, or the photo of one of your contacts calling you for an appointment.
Even so, I remain skeptical. I covered Bluetooth watches about a year ago in the April issue of the magazine. Sure, they're a novelty, but ask anyone under 18 what time it is and they will usually look at their phone. There's a reason for that. A cultural shift has made the traditional watch a relic from the past; young people have moved on.
To earn a place on my wrist, a smartwatch will have to go far beyond what those Bluetooth watches from a year ago can do. Many of the latest models still function as a smartphone accessory: you can see who is calling, read a text, check the weather, control your music, and--you guessed it--check the time.
But I definitely want more--much more. Here are a few features I'd like to see on a next-generation smartwatch.
1. Learn about my day
If the number of pitches in my inbox is any indication, predictive intelligence is more of a growing market than wearable tech. Ford is working with Google to predict which route will work best for your commute. In the IT sector, dozens of companies like Alteryx and AbsolutData are working to predict things like future storage needs. A smartwatch should be smart enough to learn about my day. It should know when I usually get up in the morning and only buzz me if I oversleep. Forget Google Calendar integration--that's easy. A smartwatch should read my email and know I always have a meeting with the boss at 10 a.m. on Fridays, and then remind me. In other words, I want my smartwatch to live up to its name.
2. No apps!
I don't need yet another gadget (beyond my iPad and iPhone) where I have to find, install, and manage apps. Any smartphone I'd wear better have customizable settings or come pre-installed with enough powerful apps to make it worthwhile. If I select a "business view," the watch should show only business-related functions based on how I use the device and where I go. For example, there is no Uber in my area. If I visit San Francisco, my watch should start prompting me to arrange for one of those cars (knowing I forgot to get my own rental). Google Now already does something similar--a bus route will pop up automatically if you are near a bus stop. That's not an app--it's just an intelligent assistant.
3. Speak to me
Speech tech is here to stay, whether you like it (Apple Siri comes to mind) or hate it (try out the technology in just about any car). Unfortunately, many of the new smartwatch models don't have this functionality. If I'm going to leave my phone in my pocket all day, my watch should be voice-activated, telling me the weather forecast when I ask, my schedule, incoming texts, and summarizing Web search results. What I really want is a conversation, a la Google Voice Search. If I say "when is my meeting with Bob?" and get the time, and then say "where does he work?" after that, the watch should respond and say Bob works at ABC Construction.
4. Brilliant display
At CES, I took a close look at a few of the smartwatches on display. The I'm Watch does have a crisp screen and photos look colorful. The problem is that the display needs to have even more of a wow factor, given the small size. Photos and video should pop in a way that makes me not want to fish out my phone. Of course, if there was some sort of pico-display that projected an image, say for a presentation, that would be even more useful, but the semiconductor industry is not quite there yet at this size. A smartwatch should have such a crisp, brilliant, and colorful display that you take one look and realize you want to wear such a stunning device at all times.
5. Wireless charging
The promise of wireless charging faltered a few years ago. In fact, I covered charge pads for the magazine way back in December of 2010. The problem is, if you have to use a specific case with your phone and then set the device down on a pad to charge, it's easier to just grab a USB charger cable. Wireless power--the kind that transmits a current from a few feet away--is still in development. If the watch I'm wearing charged wirelessly at my desk all day, it would be more appealing. If I have to remove the gadget every single day and charge it, I'd rather just wear a Casio.
6. Do something amazing
This one might seem a bit nebulous, but it is also the most important. Everything I've mentioned so far except for the wireless charging is possible with an iPhone or an Android today. And maybe I've just described the Apple iWatch feature-set. But to convince me that a smartwatch is worth wearing when my phone already has the features that suit my needs, it will have to offer something special. Maybe it's health related--the watch could constantly monitor my heart rate. Or, maybe there's an amazing new business feature--say, checking to see if everyone has arrived at a meeting. One that could really impress me: a kind of life-logger akin to the Memoto camera. If the watch tracked my whereabouts, snapped photos using a tiny built-in camera and a quick flick of the wrist, and logged my activities, I could revisit previous contacts and experiences, improving my life. That would be the ultimate win.
Read more recent articles by John Brandon: