The Smartwatch

Technology is getting closer. Yet we still haven't found the edge that will make it thrive and take off. Instead, we seem to be walking down the same path as we did during the transition from PCs to smartphones.

Back in 2011, I bought a Garmin Forerunner 610 — my first GPS-enabled watch to track runs, hikes, and this kind of stuff. Among other reasons, one driver for my purchase decision was because it sported a touch screen display. Which was Garmin’s main selling for the device point at the time, something you wouldn’t find in other watches and I believed to be a killer feature.

After three years of heavy usage, I can assure you that the touch screen wasn’t a great product idea. The tiny display made the experience confusing because some gestures couldn’t be performed as intended. The touch-based interaction in such a small device wasn’t as remarkable as I thought it would be. Moreover, Garmin didn’t go all-in with the touch bet and kept its buttoned interaction as well, which made it even more confusing. It felt like the watch wanted to be somebody else, it lacked personality and empathy.

With that experience in mind, I started the hunt for a new watch. During those three years I remained fairly disconnected from new releases, but the first thing I noticed was how fast the wearable market had evolved. What I thought was simple research for a niche device — I wouldn’t consider a fitness watch to track runs a mass-market category — ended up being a discussion on how technology is getting closer to us.

After the smartphone wars — with technology getting personal — the race for bringing technology closer has just started. Right now, nobody has a clear answer of how it will settle, and we’re are at that exhilarating point of divergence where the market is coming at the problem from many different angles.

For example, some have agreed that the wrist could be a great place to put this device because we are so used to wear them. But even if that turns out to become the winner proposition, there are several other form-factor competing approaches: armbands, wrist trackers, rings…

The interesting thing though, now back to the Garmin, is that what initially seemed a niche category — the running watch — has an opportunity to become the “the facto” smartwatch form factor. Because on one hand, smartwatches are turning their attention to fitness tracking, but on the other hand, GPS-watches, are also adding lifestyle features to their lineup. The question is who will get there first.

The reason why I’m bullish on the GPS-watch route in the short term is that new smartwatches, as they are being presented to the market, are simply stuffing a full-fledged smartphone in your wrist. That reminded me of how Microsoft approached the mobile market during the pre-iPhone era — ignoring the full potential of the form-factor and the new possibilities it could enable.

Right now, these smartwatches feel like strapping a tiny smartphone screen in the wrist, and still have to deal with many unsolved problems: they are intrusive, with unfiltered notifications buzzing all the time; the battery doesn’t last long, putting an LCD screen on it, equals having to charge it every day; but also fashion, since getting closer to the body means you are navigating an area of aesthetics and subjectivity — where form might not follow function — that tech hadn’t dealt with before.

A wearable technology, in whatever form it comes, has to go beyond the smartphone. It has to reach the places the smartphone can’t. It has to take advantage of a closer position to the body, the sensorial capabilities, and its always-listening mode to enable a whole new set of experiences the smartphone simply can’t.

Leveraging the aforementioned capabilities, a wearable can come up with novel approaches to areas like health, connectivity, or accessibility. None of those are about buzzing your wrist every time you receive a message, maybe not even having a display.

For those reasons I don’t think smartwatches as we know them will become the norm. They feel misplaced the same way my Forerunner 610 did. Like any technology that is ready to take off, it will require early adopters to be excited — and neither the LG G Smartwatch nor the Samsung Gear Watch has anybody excited.

But on the other hand, some niche markets like running GPS watches can move an already existing community to adopt its technology differently — i.e. blending performance with activity tracking within a health frame. This way, what used to be a niche, maybe can mature and get some early adopters on board, driving awareness to the market.

Technology is getting closer, that’s inevitable. Yet we still haven’t found the edge that will make it thrive and take off as the smartphone did. To do that, we need to better understand what these devices are uniquely positioned to bring to the table. The problem we want to tackle, the job to be done that nothing but them can solve.

First published on August 28, 2014