Is a Smartwatch Really a Smart Idea?Those rumbling sounds you heard on September 10 were complaints by Apple-watchers that the tech giant failed to announce an iWatch at its big press event. While Apple, Samsung and others need new product lines, and we at CMSWire need more cool things to write about, let’s take a moment to ask a simple question: Is a smartwatch really such a smart idea? 

The smartphone, portable media player, laptop computer -- they all solved problems. What exactly is the problem that a smartwatch is trying to solve? You have a smartphone in your pocket, on your hip, or in your hands, and now you’re going to also interact with a subset of that smartphone’s functions, on a tiny screen an inch or two square?

Et Tu, Nissan?

Or you’ll interact with your smartwatch by speaking into your wrist. Not to badmouth the brilliant design behind the human body or anything, but the only benefit of moving your wrist up to your mouth again and again as you get the mini-Siri to understand you would be to give a needed mini-workout to your forearm. And let’s not even get into the hindering design of that onboard pointer, the suddenly-too-large finger, when trying to interact with a miniature screen.

A smartwatch can, of course, tell time in a hundred different ways. But how many people wear watches these days, when the time is being shown to you on virtually every existing device you see, not to mention every bank sign?

Nissan’s new smartwatch -- yes, that Nissan -- shows the essence of the category. It is a peripheral for your car, just as Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear and others of the same ilk are peripherals, and occasionally remote controls, for your smartphone.

So, let’s get this straight. On your left wrist, you have a peripheral for the device in your right pocket, or even in your right hand, given that many people seem to carry their smartphones all the time. Those people, one assumes, put down their smartphones so they can touch and interact with their smartwatches, which connects to the email in their smartphones and…

Digital Watches, Reborn?

Wristwatches were invented to solve a specific problem: telling time without having to get that chained watch piece out of your pocket. That’s form meeting function, with the screen size matching the display need. But smartwatches are cut-downs of a device you already have with you. Do you expect to save time reading email or getting much weather information on such a tiny screen? Arguably, it makes sense to see on your wristwatch when two minutes have passed as you’re rushing to make a bus, but do you really need to see a postage-stamp’s worth of weather information every two minutes?

All of the hype about smartwatches, one suspects, is an effort to hide the plain truth that they are those multi-function digital watches that your brother wants to wow you with, if he could just remember how to get it to calculate square roots -- except they’re now wirelessly connected to that device in your other hand.

One could ask some of these same questions about, say, Google Glass -- i.e., what problem does it solve? But that upcoming Google product does appear to solve problems and, more importantly, it creates opportunities for using information in new ways, overlaid on your daily life. A smartwatch simply switches hands.

Why Be a Companion Device?

At least as presently conceived. If one dreamed up a useful smartwatch, it might do away with the smartphone altogether -- adding more visual and interactive display with a flexible screen that uses your entire wrist’s circumference, onboarding cellular and data transceivers, and communicating with an earpiece/microphone/eyepiece you wear as commonly as one now wears sunglasses.

Consider a few data points:

  • Apple is said to have as many as 1000 engineers and designers working on something that is being a called a smartwatch. The new iPhone 5S contains a new M7 processor that could lead to new kinds of behavioral and motion detection.
  • The Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and a variety of other attempts to advance this category, have yet to gain much traction in the marketplace or praise in the media.
  • Apple has made its name by radically transforming, or completely inventing, new categories, not by dropping its partially-eaten fruit logo on an existing type of product. More than one trend observer has noted that you know there’s an opportunity if others keep getting a product wrong.

Maybe Apple is cooking up something else?