Making Smartwatches As Popular As Smartphones

While the smartwatches in the market today are really nice and revolutionary, the sales of these watches are still slowly building up. It is expected that about 1.2 million smartwatches will ship this year, a paltry number compared to the estimated 1.5 billion smart phone users in the world. What could be the reason for this? It is likely that the current smartwatches do not have the critical components or features that will make them a runaway success.

Euromonitor’s head of consumer electronics, Loo Wee Teck, commented current smartwatches are just not that great a customer proposition yet.

“Smartwatches try to replicate the smartphone experience on a minuscule wrist-sized screen, which translates to inferior usability or otherwise seek to complement and extend the functionality of smartphone onto a smaller screen”

So what will make the perfect smartwatch?

I have condensed it down to five components that need to be addressed before we can see this class of wearable electronics take off. These five components are design, functionality and reliability, apps, power consumption and battery life and lastly, durability. Why do I think that these are important? Well let’s look at them one by one.

Design

The design of the smartwatch can be split into three separate parts, namely the watch body, the watch face and finally the wrist strap.

The first thing that people look at would likely be the watch body. Is it too bulky, does it look cool and fashionable? The ideal body should be suitable for both casual and formal wear. For example, the Pebble with its nice clean sporty look would blend well sports attire but might look a bit out of place when worn with a suit and tie. The newer contenders like the AGENT or Vachen however, could be worn with normal casual attire or formal wear.

The watch bodies should be at a reasonable size as well. The size of the dive computers made by Suunto are a pretty decent size without being unwieldy. They can be worn like a normal wrist watch and most divers do that.

Most guys do not mind larger watches but some ladies do. Should there be two watch sizes? Perhaps this would be a good solution, after all, we have had watch sizes for men and women all this while. However, add too much bulk to the watch and it becomes one chunky thing on the wrist that appeals to no one. The difference in watch size could mean that more goodies can be crammed into it. A larger batter would be the most welcomed and perhaps some sensors as well?

Of course the watch body should match the watch face it is displaying. The watch face, like the body, should be able to match different dressing needs as well. This is easier as the watch face can be changed with the press of a button. So this is something that the watch makers or third party developers will need to take note of. While the watch body can have a general design that fits most dressing needs, the watch face should match a particular theme. A formal classy watch face for more formal occasions to large sporty display for sporting needs, there should be enough watch faces to appeal to different users and their needs.

Pebble made this possible by releasing an SDK for third party developers to create their own watch faces. This has lead to a huge library of watch faces for the Pebble. Vachen took a different approach. They develop their own watch faces but promise over 100 watch faces available upon the launch of the Vachen watch.

Last but not least, the watch strap. Just like the two other parts mentioned, the watch strap should be able fit most dressing situations and there are two possible ways to do this. The first way would be similar to the design fundamentals of the watch body such that the watch strap would look good whether it is worn with casual or more formal wear. A good example of this design method would be the watch straps of the Agent watch. It features an accent-stitched watch strap that looks chic enough for normal wear but the stitching adds that extra bit of class that makes it blend with formal wear as well.

A second option would be for the strap to be easily replaceable. While the Pebble and Agent use standard 22mm watch straps that are easily changed with a small screw driver, this might still be a bit too troublesome for some, especially if you change straps often or are in a rush. The Sony SmartWatch and Motorola MotoActv offer an interesting alternative. The watch body contains a spring-loaded clip which is used to clip onto the watch strap, allowing for really quick changes. The only downside of this method is that the clip adds quite a bit of thickness to the body.

Which is a better method? Personally, I think a mix of both. The strap should be able to fit most situations but also allow users to change the straps as they like. Using 22mm straps is a good idea as they are ubiquitous and are available in many designs and materials.

Functionality and reliability

Other than just simply looking good, a successful smartwatch should be able to carry out its duties as a smartwatch as well.

Firstly, what should the screen be? A touchscreen, normal LCD or e-ink display? Each option has its own benefits and disadvantages and affects several key considerations of a smartwatch, like design, functionality and power consumption. For starters, does a touch screen make sense for a smartwatch? Would one be able to use the watch without being frustrated with jabbing at such a small screen? A small screen would also mean that you cannot display a lot of information. Apple seemed to have tested this by releasing a touch-capable iPod nano, which many turned into a watch. But the iPod nano is still an iPod, can it do what we require of a smartwatch? Perhaps Apple has learned some interesting insights into wearable teachnology with the iPod nano “experiment”?

Having said that, I think that a touchscreen would definitely add to the usability of the watch compared to pressing buttons to scroll and select (that’s so 1990s right?). Besides, with touch screen smart phones being so ubiquitous now, this might be something that people expect. However, this increase in usability is balanced off by an increase in power consumption. While it is great to have touch functions, it wouldn’t be so great if your watch needs charging every couple of hours.

When designing a new gadget, it is always tempting to make it do more and more, adding function after function to it. But as Apple has shown, sometimes more can be less. Will adding a feature or function add to the value of the watch or take something away? For example, adding a microphone to your smartwatch to allow hands-free (well sort of) calling from your watch would mean that the watch would not be as waterproof as one without a mic. Similarly, adding the clip to the back of the watch allows convenience at the cost of adding thickness. Which is a better choice? There will always be compromises that need to be made and everything is a balancing act. Successful products will be able to pick the features that people want and take away those that only add fluff. If no one wants to talk through the watch, why add it in?

Notifications are a critical component of the smartwatch value proposition. For a start, they must be reliable and pushed to the user as required. If notifications are regularly missing, the user will not trust the watch and thus be required to continue checking their phones, defeating the purpose of the watch. Moreover, notifications must be informative and accessible. Enough information must be available on the watch face without being too cluttered. One issue about the Pebble is that it only shows the latest notification, which reduces the usability of the device.

Lastly, reliability is another important piece of the puzzle. Given that smartwatches contain mini-computers running an operating system, they too can crash or freeze up in the same way our computers do. For smart phones like the iPhone, plugging the device into a computer and syncing with iTunes usually solves the problem. But since smartwatches are unable to do the same, ie sync directly with a computer through a hardware connection, it should have a way of self rebooting to restore functionality or, at the very least, get basic functions like the watch face and Bluetooth running. Imagine if you bricked your watch and cannot get it to restart as

iLounge discovered when they bricked their Cookoo.

One thing I really like about the Agent is the use of redundancies to reduce the chances of bricking the watch. For a start, it uses two firmware memory banks to act as a failsafe and a secondary processor that is able to restart the watch into recovery mode. This gives you the peace of mind that all is not lost even if something goes wrong on your watch.

Apps

Many believe that without the Apple SDK and App store, the iPhone 3G and subsequent models would not have been as successful as they are today. Apps provided a means for third party developers to extend the functionality of the device.

In fact, with so many third part developers out there, apps and functionality can be added at a faster rate and even better than what the manufacturers themselves can do. But of course, watch manufacturers have to concentrate on the operating system core and hardware development as well, so the development of these apps should best be left to external developers.

Given the financial incentive (ie paid apps), we will be able to see a maturation of the app market, moving from just watch faces to apps that add on a whole new dimension of functionality and collaboration between the watch and the phone. While some might scoff at the idea of having to pay for apps (we are all spoiled by the number of good free or freemium apps available), wouldn’t it be a good thing for everyone if really great apps were developed for the watches they use? If the app can help shave off a half hour or so off our schedule each day or gives us a peace of mind when we need it, wouldn’t it be worth a few dollars? With a healthy app market, app developers will have the financial incentive to make better and better apps and that will only benefit the users in the long run.

When the Pebble’s makers released their new two way SDK in mid May 2013, it allowed developers to create two way communications into their apps so that the watch can now “talk” to your phone and your phone can “talk” back. The first app to utilize this new functionality is the Pebble Ringer, which allows the user to change your iPhone’s ringing mode. This allows you to switch your phone to silent when you are in a meeting, vibrate when you are at work and back to ring when you get home. It isn’t much now, but this simple app just barely scratches the surface of what two way communication can do. There might be a lot more that you can do to control your phone with just your watch. These are exciting times!

Power consumption and battery life

Smartwatches can only function as a smartwatch when it has power, so a long battery life is important. It will be useless if it can only be used for a day or less before you need charging. As with all gadgets with a computer processor, more powerful applications that require more complex calculations or more active sensors will use up battery faster than simpler apps. The tradeoff arises again, do you choose a watch that has a long battery life but very simple apps (like the Casio GB6900AA and Cookoo) or one that provides more advanced functions but last for a much shorter period of time (like the Sony SmartWatch or MotoActv)? Will consumers be satisfied with a watch that doesn’t have true smart functions? For example, the Cookoo displays only a flashing icon to represent the type of incoming notification, which does not provide any additional information to me and I will still have to take my phone out. This defeats the purpose of having a smartwatch.