Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Are Smart Watches ready for Prime time?

Watch, An ubiquitous time telling device has remained static for last century. There has been few sporadic attempts to extend the digital revolution to watches.  Casio made digital watches with calculators, Watches with Radio, Watches with TV - but all these attempts created a small niche for multifunction digital watches - but the good old mechanical watches still ruled the world.

Now in 2012, Android powered smart watches are making a foray - with Sony, Motorola and host of other vendors trying their best to promote smart watches - i.e., a new generation smart watches that are nothing but stripped down versions of smart phones - with smaller screens and with limited functionality.

But are smart watches ready for prime time? 

Since the prime audience for smart watches already have smart phones, do users want one more device to check their emails, or to tweet or to update their facebook status?

As an early adapter of technology, I looked at Sony Smart Watch (shown in the picture) At the first look, it was attractive, the screen size of ~1 sq inch (like iPod nano), four icons on the home screen, plus a default watch screen.

But the real value can be found with usage - more appropriately what customers will use the smart watch for? Will customers use the smart watches for other things than telling time?

Strangely, the first generation smart watches are designed for a mobile - albeit with a smaller screen, lessor memory and CPU to conserve power. Battery management system in the smart phones is copied from smart phones and that idea itself is killer for smart watches!

How many times do you like to sneak on your watch to see a "Blank" screen? Do you really want to touch the screen to see the time?

I guess not!

The first thing people want from their watches is to see the time! So having a blank screen is akin to shooting on your own foot - while starting to run a marathon race.

Leading Smart Watches

Sony is probably the first big entrant into Smart watch business, but there are several others. I'm Watch is the other noteworthy competitor to Sony.

But there are a host of other vendors: inPulse, Fossil Metawatch & others. Surprisingly, none of the traditional watch companies have introduced any smart watches - not even Casio!

What does the Smart Watch do?

All the smart watches use the software designed for smart phones - and hence have a legacy of mobile apps: email, SMS, Music, Radio, Internet, weather, facebook, twitter, images etc.

Please note that the smart watch is not very convenient to read emails or SMS or to read your facebook wall - but those 'popular' functions are available on the watch.

Surprisingly, none of the smart watch websites describe how their smart watches make it easier to tell date and time! May be its a hint that these smart watches are designed to do a whole lot of other functions than just tell time. ( And if you want to know just the time - you are better off with a Timex! )

In other words, the first generation smart watches are pretty much useless in terms of what you can do with it. A person must be really be dumb to walk around with a smart watch. To me its akin to wearing a dunce cap that loudly says "Look at me, I am a gullible idiot to buy a smart watch."

I do not intend to dismiss the smart watches. I believe there will be a whole of interesting and exciting uses for smart watches - but those apps or use cases have not yet been developed yet.

What do I like to see in the ultimate Smart watch?

Current generation smart watches are  useless.

But I look at the current smart watches in the same way as a new born baby - both the baby and the watch cannot do anything much, both seek your constant attention for food or battery charging. Apart from showing it off to the whole world there is nothing you can do of real value with a smart watch.

But it has a very promising future.

The good old "expensive" mechanical watches (Omega, Rolex, Tissot, etc) will give way to smart devices.

To begin with, every smart watch should have the following functions:

1. Hey watch! Be Smart.

A smart watch must be Smart. Most watches are simple output devices - they just tell time. A smart watch must be just as simple to use. The inherent smartness of the watch should take care of all operational issues.  This sounds too simple. But in the smart world, simple things are often very tough.

A smart watch should never require any charging. It should be able to charge itself.

Smart watch must get its power from ambient sources: light, heat motion or radio signals. One must never have to "remember" to charge the watch.

A smart watch should never be told what is the time. It should be able to automatically determine the local time/date and display it.

Basic necessities such as: Water proof, all weather proof must be there.

Smart watch must be multi-lingual, i.e, ability to display time/date in multiple languages.

Smart upgrades. User must never have to upgrade the software to prevent malware and hacks. It must be done without user intervention in the background.

2. Look Mom: "No wires"

All smart devices are loaded with wired interfaces. On a watch connecting a wire is a hassle. Therefore there should be no wires. All connections must be wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc

Wires are a lousy way to connect to any device - just get rid of all wires!

3. Wake up Grandma - you forgot to take your sleeping pills.

Watches is an "i" device, develop apps that are specific to the individual. For example app to monitor heart rate, body temperature etc. and other health apps. With an aging population in US, Japan & Europe, the ability to integrate with other medical devices will be a very valuable function.

Smart watch must have basic functions such as health reminders, health recording functions etc. One can also set up the watch to remotely sync up with office calendar and send meeting and appointment alerts.

Smart watch can also be one's personal MP3 player, Radio, Video player etc. One should be able to load music remotely over cloud services.

Personalizable. Users can set the home screens, color screens etc, display formats etc.

4. "Beam me up Scotty"

Well we are not exactly there yet. But everytime I step out into Bangalore traffic, I feel the need for the Star Trek's transporter. But then I am willing to settle for the next best thing - smart watch with traffic advisory services & locational services.

Locational services will be key function. Getting to know where the watch is will also determine where the person is. So it can be used to keep track of your family members or help them with driving directions etc.

With a smart watch one must be able to find the best way back home and one will never get lost with a smart watch.

5. Dick Tracy's communicator.

Smart watch is not just a watch. It is a life saver. Watch should be able to communicate emergency information over to emergency services. Voice based 911 dialing etc. Ability to communicate during emergency will be a big life saver.

Wireless Internet and VoIP technology will also help people talk to each other with their watches. I agree that watch is not the best communicator device, but then Dick Tracy was always able to talk to Lizz with his phone.

6. James Bond's secret weapon.

In the movie Moonraker - James Bond wears a watch which also doubles as a gun.

Spy functions on the watch such as Camera to take discreet photos, voice recorders, projector video recorders, data storage, hidden explosives. The list is limited by your imagination.

Not everyone will need these functions - but then there are power users like Mr. Bond who will need it - after all this is the smart watch!

Closing Thoughts

Smart watches are here to stay. The challenge is - how soon companies can make smart watches relevant to users and make them adopt to it. Pricing of smart watches is not an issue - people today buy expensive "Swiss" watches. People can afford it, but will the embrace it?

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