Smart Watches; How “Smart” are They?

“Dick Tracy calling Joe Jitsu. Come in Joe Jitsu.”

Dick Tracy 1

 Most of you are probably too young to have seen this cartoon live, but Dick Tracy’s “Two Way Wrist Radio” was cool back in the day. During the time that show aired, in the 60’s and 70’s, the big thing with real-life watches was the development of quartz movement, followed later by a digital LED display, which was dark until you pushed a button to light up the numerals. We all know how watches have evolved since, adding: stopwatch, countdown timer, date (day, month, year), waterproof protection, calculators, barometric pressure sensors, depth sensors, compass, temperature gauge, and wireless sync with atomic clocks, etc.

Dick Tracy 2

Mobile smartphones are really mobile computing devices capable of rivaling the computing power of some laptop PCs in terms of functionality and ease of use. We have so much information at our fingertips, including the time, that it seems of late, many people are wearing watches more for style than for functionality. Yet because computer chips and related technology is getting smaller and smaller, companies are able to design and build watches that integrate with one’s smartphone to provide added functionality, or offer stand-alone smartphone features. Before I go any further, let me arrive at the thesis of this editorial, which is that I find smart watches to be bunk; novel but useless, shiny, things to waste money on.

As you are reading this on a BlackBerry fan site, and since BB doesn’t have a “horse” in the smart watch “race,” you might expect me to say that. However, let me reply by saying that in an attempt to be objective, I have given that very point some thought, and I have concluded that BB isn’t in the smart watch business, in part, because they’re just not that useful.

I’ve been thinking about what value these watches could realistically provide. On the plus side, many of us are already wearing watches for jewelry and to a lesser extent, to tell time. We also typically have our smartphones within arm’s reach, so you might think a watch that communicates with your smartphone could provide some value-add. On the minus side, the screens are really small and you have to wonder just how much information they can really provide. I love my Q10, but even some BB users prefer other BB phones because the screen is smaller, and if anything, we seem to be moving towards larger screens. So what exactly is a smartwatch going to provide you with so little screen real estate?

A brief internet search will bring you to pages listing the currently available lineup of smartwatches as well as those in development. It seems there are no less than 45 different offerings available for purchase today or in the near future. Based on this alone, it seems this platform is not going away.

Smart W
This is a small sample of what’s out there.

In any event, it seems these watches range from basic activity tracker bands offering basic functionality like telling you who’s calling on your smartphone on one end, all the way to being stand-alone phones, albeit with limited memory and functionality. I am a “watch-guy,” which means, I have a weakness for them. Currently, I have an awesome Seiko, analog, solar powered diving watch with a nice, tight bezel and 60 minute timer as my “daily driver.” I also have a Suunto, which can tell me how fast I’ve ascended a mountain, whether or not a storm is coming, which direction is north, how long I’ve done something, how much time until something happens, what day, year and month it is, and what the temperature is. I have an assortment of Casio G-Shock watches, which are overbuilt and could probably be run over by a car with no ill effect, and lastly, I have a bunch in some state of disrepair, a Tag, a Luminox Navy Seal watch, etc. I love watches and can walk into a store and become entranced by all the watch offerings. I should be the ideal person for a smartwatch, yet I still find them to be silly.

One of the reasons I love my Q10 is functionality. Although I love the stainless steel (brushed aluminum?) frets on the front and back, and the carbon fiber battery cover, I love it because it does stuff. In fact, it does a lot of stuff really efficiently. Messaging, productivity, security, communications, are all things it does well. When I approach these smartwatch offerings, I cannot help but ask myself, “What are they really gonna do for me?” With my own simple mind, I have been trying to imagine scenarios when I would want wearable tech on my wrist like this, and I really can’t think of many.

retro handset
Other “useful” tech. (Ironically and appropriately paired.)

Ask yourself some questions: 1) How often would you ever want to wear a very large, bigger than 1” square, device on your wrist that is capable of making and receiving telephone calls? How would you answer these calls anyway? With a speaker and mic on the device? Would you have to wear a Bluetooth in your ear? Does that defeat the purpose of the watch anyway? I mean, couldn’t they instead just put all the intelligence into the device you wear in your ear? Even if you could think of a scenario, where you would want a big watch that was a phone on your wrist, would the device require its own service plan and phone number? Would that be a little cost prohibitive given you’re already likely carrying a smartphone anyway? How about the battery and power management? How many times a day are you going to want to take the watch off to charge it? At what point does this somehow become more convenient or productive than just carrying around the smartphone you already have?

2) What about the smartwatches that work in conjunction with your smartphone? When would you not be able to pick up your phone if you have to have it on you anyway? If your hands are full? So you’re going to buy a watch that tells you who’s calling, in case you should have your hands full? Would you have to give up anything in return? Durability? Water resistance? Other functionality? How long would the battery on the watch last? Doesn’t it have to drive a bigger screen than your average Casio? Doesn’t it need to power some kind of Bluetooth connection? What if you’re in a meeting? Is it helpful to be able to glance down and see a name of someone who called? Maybe once in a great while it would be. But would this justify the size, battery life, charging requirements, potential lack of durability, including water resistance, that you would likely give up? When would you really not be able to glance at your smartphone to see whatever your smartwatch is telling you?

And how about the size of the screens? If you think about the average digital watch, and the size of the numerals, how much information can realistically be conveyed in any sort of meaningful way on such a small screen?

I actually cannot imagine a scenario where either type of smartwatch provides anything worthwhile, particularly given the tradeoffs, as I know they will require power management, (charging) be less durable, and potentially bigger. I don’t mean to sound like a downer, but this is where I stand.

I know we have some smart people here at UTB. Please sound off and let me know; am I missing something? Should BlackBerry get into this business?

james pisano

RIM/BB fan since 2009. Wouldn't consider entrusting my career, life or privacy to another platform. Foremost, I am a student of life. Some likes: longboarding, nature, Baltimore Orioles, technology, driving, music, reading and Taoism. Politically independent.