The Story (And Battle) On Your Wrist

The concept of wearable computing has given me pause more than once over the last year or so. In one particular episode of the podcast, I referred to it as "a scam." While I am interested in this type of device, I'm not picking up what the tech media, Google, and Samsung are putting down quite yet. In a way, it feels like wearables were conjured out of thin air by the press, especially since it's not really that interesting to blather on about smartphones or tablets anymore. There has to be something else right around the corner to spark the interest of the reader. Enter wearables.

To be fair, some kind of smartwatch does seem to be the next logical step in the story. The watch face is the final frontier, the last available physical screen to be conquered. Unfortunately, the wearable devices we're seeing today seem to be built from blueprints found in the comment sections of Re/Code rather than being grounded in legitimate innovation. These are wristwatch-sized versions of our phones' lock screens. And while Google's I/O conference revealed a little more functionality, the move was expected – Google Now on a smaller screen.

The LG G Watch, one of the first Android Wear smartwatches.

The LG G Watch, one of the first Android Wear smartwatches.

I do consider devices of this kind to be interesting. Being a fairly regular watch-wearer myself, it would be nice to add some functionality to my wrist, even if nothing particularly interesting can be done with that information without whipping out a phone. Yes, I know, you can order pizza right from the watch screen now, but there's something about this current offering of products, as well as all the ones that came before, that doesn't feel quite right.

 

It's almost as if each one should have a stamp on the back of the band that says "Designed By The People Of The Internet." These devices simply have no personality. 

Is all this to say that we just need to wait for Apple to do something truly interesting and useful with wearables? Maybe. The current stable of smartwatch products are much like the MP3 players in the era before the iPod. They're functional, somewhat cool, and are probably going to usher in a whole new way for us to interact with the world. The problem is that unlike standard computers, tablets, phones, and MP3 players, when it comes to wristwatches fashion is just as important as function. If this new class of device not both recognizably stylish and instantly helpful, it won't catch on in the way previous products have. It's an arena ripe for a shakeup. 

A few years back my wife bought me a Citizen Eco-Drive for my birthday. It tells me the time and date, and even better, it is 100% solar powered. I've owned it for about four years and it has never needed a battery or any other maintenance. Even after long stretches of time away from the sunlight, it continues to sip the solar power stored in the battery without falling behind for even a second. Basically, it does what I expect it to do in the most efficient way possible. And if you've never seen a Citizen watch, let me tell you, they also look very nice. Any company that wants their device to take the place of my current watch will have to do a lot to impress me. Obviously we don't have the battery technology yet for these things to be solar powered, so how often will my watch go dead on my wrist? Can it look like a nice watch and still feature innovative functionality? How does it hold up to wear and tear? Right now, there are more questions than answers.

For the next few years, many companies are certainly going to be competing to occupy my  arm and my eyeglasses, and will most certainly make a move at some point to supplant my smartphone altogether with something smaller, thinner, lighter, and most importantly, wearable. Something that blends in rather than sits in my pocket or on my desk. It will sip power like my Citizen watch. It will somehow do all the things my iPhone does and it will do them better. How we will get there is anyone’s guess. Devices like the Pebble watch and the Nike FuelBand were just the first chapter of this story. The sky is most definitely the limit from here.

In my mind, it's Apple's move. I'm a devout iOS user. I'm not going to buy a smartwatch that requires me to switch to Android, nor do I find the units that support multiple platforms to be all that interesting or functional. Likewise, if Apple makes yet another watch that just gives me notifications on my wrist, I will not be buying one. Apple has made dud products before – yes, even with Steve Jobs at the helm – and the company is certainly not immune from repeating the mistakes of its competitors. A glowing square on my wrist that just prompts me to check my email won't do. I don't know what the magic pill is for smartwatches, and if any company knows, it's Apple. If the rumors are to be believed, we'll find out this fall. Until then, I'll stick with wearing a watch that actually does something useful and practical.