Computers

Will 'smartwatches' be a hit with consumers?

February 24, 2013 

Disruptive technologies can change the computer landscape instantly. The trick is to figure out whether a new product is truly disruptive or merely a passing fad, and on that score, the “smartwatch” is hard to judge. We’re going to be seeing a rash of these, to judge from reports, with the promise of instant information delivery to your wrist. But this isn’t Dick Tracy’s watch and smartwatches won’t be autonomous computers as much as smartphone peripherals.

Ahead of us stretches a healthy period of experimentation. One thing we do know: Early adopters love the idea. Consider a device called the Pebble, which not only tells the time but also talks to iPhones and Android devices. When Eric Migicovsky, founder of InPulse, introduced the idea on Kickstarter, he was trying to use the “crowdfunding” site to raise $100,000 to develop the watch. That goal was hit after a mere two hours and total funding climbed to over $10 million.

So there’s clearly a market for Migicovsky’s $150 device. But smartwatches have been tried before, with products like Sony Ericsson’s LiveView and Apple’s iPod nano, which can be strapped to the wrist. A new generation of smartwatches will have to up the ante. The Pebble, for example, lets you read text on its tiny screen, surprisingly sharp because the device uses an e-ink display, and once you’ve linked the device with your smartphone via Bluetooth, you’ll be set to get email previews, texts from your friends, Facebook messages and incoming call alerts.

Pebble vs. iWatch mystery

The Pebble, then, is a smartphone adjunct, and the value proposition will be found in whatever it can deliver that the phone can’t by way of convenience or accessibility. Unlike Dick Tracy’s gadget, this is not a phone on your wrist. But smartwatches are the kind of market, still churning and ill-defined, that Apple does well in, as witness the success of the iPad. Other companies had produced tablets, but it took Apple to make them a fixture of the computer landscape.

Now rumors are flying about a so-called iWatch, still unconfirmed by Apple. We have little to go on, but the buzz is that the company has a large team working on the product, which would communicate with the iPhone by Bluetooth. Changes to the iPod nano have people wondering whether Apple isn’t trying to prepare the market for a smartwatch that will go far beyond a nano strapped to the wrist. Surely the traction the Pebble smartwatch found at Kickstarter would have caught Apple’s eye, as would the introduction of Sony’s $129 SmartWatch product.

Apple playing catchup

To the extent Apple makes the smartwatch an extension of the iPhone, the product will have legs. It’s hard to see an attempt to displace the company’s successful smartphone market with an all-in-one communicator. I’d enjoy having a watch that locked into whatever time zone I was in and was accurate. Add calendar, contacts and alarm features that don’t require deployment of the smartphone in awkward settings, and you’ve got an intriguing product. A key to success is the fact that using it requires you to carry no new objects.

The iPod nano fails as a smartwatch because it has no Bluetooth connection to phone or tablet. Sony’s SmartWatch works with Android devices and lets you control music playback on your phone while also offering emails, text messages and a variety of apps. I can’t see Apple sitting still; we’ve all seen its way with design and its ability to turn straightforward devices like cellphones into market-changing powerhouses like the iPhone. Will Apple soon attempt the same magic on your wrist?

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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