Not so smart phones

The flood of new so-called smart watches continues. Some people seem to love theirs, others remain to be convinced.

Count me in with the unconvinced, though only because the current ones seem to be poorly conceived.

Marco Arment says:

Portability is critical to modern device usefulness, and there are only two classes that matter anymore: always with you, and not… Smartphones dominate always with you.

I think this gets to the heart of why the current range of devices — both those for sale and also those just announced at CES — just are not very compelling.

Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that most of them look awful.

Actually, no. Let’s not. You can’t sell a device for hundreds of pounds, one designed to sit on your wrist, replacing the only jewellery that many men wear, and make it look like a digital watch from 1981. I half expect the next smart watch to have a calculator keyboard on like the old Casios.

(For what it’s worth, I think new Pebbles are a big step forward over the original version. Unfortunately I like my super-thin Skagen so I’d still consider it a long way from acceptable.)

But yes, let’s assume the form-factor was more pleasing. Then it still doesn’t work. They’re not replacing anything. They’re accessories for an already expensive and always-with-you device. Sure, looking at your wrist is easier than getting your phone out of your pocket, but is it really that much easier? Is it several hundred pounds better? Is it worth the hit on you phones battery life and the inconvenience of yet another device to charge? I think most people will conclude, no.

So in summary, I think that smart watches have two main problems:

  1. Aesthetics
  2. They’re companion devices

The first is solvable with advancing technology and a degree of taste. The latter means that not every manufacturer will solve it but once the components become small enough putting them in an attractive case becomes possible.

Moore’s Law can partly solve the second point, too, but it’s not enough on its own. You’d also need changes in the way you interact with the device if it’s to be a full replacement for a smartphone.

I don’t think the answer to that is speech. Sure, Siri will get better, but there are places where you can’t or wouldn’t want to talk to your devices. And it would be hard to do an Android and get bigger and bigger screens — at least until we evolve to have bigger fore-arms.

Instead, I wonder if smart-watches are really a bit of a technological dead-end. If over time components tend smaller and smaller, then why stop at wrist watch size?

The other side of the equation is the smart phone. Is it really the best form-factor that we can possibly imagine? Do we use smart phones because they are the best place to put small computers, radios and piles of sensors?

Or put another way: if you could have the same functionality that’s currently in your smart phone in the form of a watch, would you take it? If you could take all that functionality and not even have to wear a watch, would you take it?

The smart phone is a great compromise. It’s small and with you most of the time. But you still have to carry it. You can still easily lose or drop it and break it.

Smart watches and Google Glass try to solve these problems but, as Marco says, they do so with some pretty serious draw-backs. The smartphone is better for most people right now but that won’t always be the case.