Dumb Smartwatches?

Apple Watch
Apple Watch

Apple Watch has been much in the headlines lately, and the leading role Apple has long had in fashionable, personal devices explains much of the hype. If Apple enters the product category, then it is ready for mainstream, the conventional wisdom goes. However, in this case Apple’s leadership is not guaranteed.

A smartwatch is possibly even a more personal and intimate device than a smartphone, if such a thing is possible. Rather than pocketed, a watch is tied to your wrist, always just a glance away from the focus of your attention. Granted, many people appear to walk around with their mobile phone constantly in their hand, but that is not the way a phone is originally designed to be used. A wristwatch, on the contrary, is meant to be worn all day long.

A wristwatch is also on your skin. It becomes really intimate part of yourself, and as it is a visible part of one’s attire, it can also be considered as a fashion accessory. Some people invest considerable sums of money to jewelry, and some prefer to make their fashion statements by investing into expensive timepieces. This is one demographic which Apple Watch is aimed at, with its 17 000 dollars top-of-the-line pricing.

One major problem with expensive smartwatches is the speed that information and communication technologies and services evolve. A one year or two years old model might already be obsolete, as it is missing support for some crucial new functionality. A classic wristwatch can be timeless in a manner that a smartwatch never can be.

Samsung Gear S
Samsung Gear S

Another key issue is the service ecosystem integration. Currently there are at least three non-compatible app ecosystems that are competing of the souls (and money) of smartwatch users: Android Wear, Samsung Gear (based on Tizen, Samsung’s own Android-competitor), and the Apple Watch OS. I have personally been testing Samsung Gear S watch for some time, and while it has some arguably superior technical features (for a full list, see here), it is seriously lacking in applications that would support and integrate with key information, communication, entertainment and lifestyle services that most people are already committed into, with their smartphones, tablet devices and personal computers. Support of such services is really essential for a smartwatch to survive in the technologically overpopulated media ecology of today. Having unique content that truly benefits and interacts with e.g. the sensors and contextual information of these things (as in next generation pervasive games) will be another necessary step.

LG G Watch R
LG G Watch R

It is still too early to declare any winners in this race to colonize the virgin landscape of mainstream wearable space and associated user cultures. If some guesses can be made, though, I’d bet that Apple Watch will be doing rather well particularly in the US, where the existing user base for Apple devices has traditionally been strong, and the benefits of extending that into a smartwatch are therefore strongest. On the other hand, elsewhere I’d bet Android Wear to have advantage. This is due to the obvious benefits available for Google service users: the direct access to the wrist from Google Calendar and Google Now alerts alone is something that would be rather valuable for any busy professional of today. If all your personal and business contacts are in Google system, and you have saved all your important address points to the Google Maps, then it is natural to extend daily navigation, time keeping and communications filtering tasks to a Google-compatible smartwatch. Samsung appears to be weakest in this service integration area, and it might be a good idea for them to join forces e.g. with Microsoft with its large base of Exchange/Outlook users, as without well-integrated and highly automated access to the backbone personal data services a smartwatch is actually a pretty dumb idea.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.