December 4, 2015

Smartwatches and Smart Watches

Smart wearables, smart watches, and smartwatches; are you confused? I try to sift and winnow.

I have been meaning to write something up about the Apple Watch, the Pebble, and the smart wearable market in general, but I hadn’t gotten around to gathering all of my thoughts, mainly because of just how complex and personal of an issue it is. Then, Tag Heuer announced their smart watch, Fossil bought Misfit, Withings released an update to their smart watches, and the Apple Watch continues to get press, which muddied the waters further for me. There was a surprising amount of media coverage on that Tag Heuer smartwatch, as well, especially since it came at a time when Google’s Android Wear OS was being described as showing very little growth, so let’s just say I have been inundated with information on the subject. Of course, as time passes, discussing specific articles and milestones seems silly to me, so here we are a month later.

This post was not (and is not) intended to be a discussion of the Tag Heuer Smart Watch, it was (and is) meant to be a discussion of smart wearables in general. However, my thoughts came to a head when I realized that there is often a cognitive disconnect when discussing smart wearables. When a person says the words smart” and watch” subsequently, are they referring to a smartwatch or a smart watch? What counts as a smartwatch versus a smart watch versus a smart wearable? I can only answer these questions for myself, but I thought I would share some of those thoughts here.

Disclosures: I used to own a Misfit Shine and loved it. I lost it on a bike ride and purchased an original Pebble to try it out. I have since continued to use the Pebble as my daily fitness tracker and timepiece. I desire a second or third generation Apple Watch. Android Wear has never interested me.

To my eyes, there are four types of wrist-worn devices, listed here by ascending technological capabilities: traditional watch, smart wearable, smart watch, smartwatch. Below are my definitions of the smart varietals:

With the above definitions in mind (and the knowledge that I am not a watch guy otherwise), I really liked the idea of a simple smart wearable before the debut of the Apple Watch. In fact, back when the Apple Watch was still just a rumor, I stated:

Given the recent patent filing from Apple surrounding flexible batteries, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s entry reminds us more of LiveStrong” bracelets than watches.

Now that the Apple Watch is a fully realized device and a smartwatch in the traditional” sense, I can tell that my statement was a hopeful one, but ostensibly incorrect. When I initially started looking at fitness trackers, one of my main use cases was something wrist-worn that could tell me the time. In addition, I wanted something that I did not have to charge every night. Hence, I purchased the Misfit Shine, which at the time was really the only device that looked good while providing me with what I wanted. A lot has happened since then and I have tried out a number of smart wearables, including the Misfit Shine, the Misfit Flash, a Fitbit, the Pebble (both old and new varieties), and, of course, the Apple Watch, but the Apple Watch is the only one that truly captures my imagination of what is to come.

The Pebble is currently my daily driver and the reasons for that are two-fold: cost and complacency. The Pebble was cheaper to try out, had a longer battery life (so I wouldn’t need to charge it every night) and did what I expected it to do for the time being. Even now, my needs have not suddenly become insurmountable for my Pebble, so there is no need to change it. However, the app ecosystem on the Pebble leaves something to be desired, which is the reason why I continue to see the Apple Watch as the gold standard of the smartwatch category. In the smart watch and smart wearable categories, however, the competition for the Apple Watch could be harder, especially where battery life (and charging) is concerned. In addition, there are still those people out there that simply don’t want a smartphone on their wrist and may never want that. I will be very interested to see the outcome of Fossil’s purchase of Misfit; will it ruin the Misfit brand or help the Fossil brand?

Nevertheless, smart watches and simple smart wearables rarely need to worry about their platforms growth since much of the time, the platform owner is the only one that develops the software and partnerships for a given device—Fitbit has bucked the trend here—whereas a smartwatch’s platform is often fully dependent on third-parties. In that vein, Dan Frommer at Quartz made the case that the Apple Watch is a stalled platform. His sentiment is a humorous one in that, even if he were correct, the Apple Watch would still be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

The Apple Watch also has developers that care about the platform and are doing some compelling things. To prove my point, just yesterday, venerable iOS app developer, David Smith, released an update for his Pedometer++ app, which reminded me of what makes the Apple Watch great, especially in comparison to its competition: third-party developers. What Mr. Smith is doing with the Apple Watch may inherently be possible on any smart wearable, but the fact is there are not outspoken, third-party developers working on those platforms. And, really, who can blame them? When a flagship device is released on your platform that looks like the Tag Heuer Connected and even its purveyor sees it as a temporary stop-gap towards a grown-up, mechanical watch, I wouldn’t want to talk about the man-hours I spend developing for it either.

In other words, Apple has created a great piece of hardware that just works in many ways and has already started to create the ecosystem that allows for great developers to do great things with said hardware. The app ecosystem on the Pebble on the other hand, which has arguably good hardware characteristics as well, can be defined in a single word: anemic. But I still do not own an Apple Watch. My hope is that subsequent generations of the Apple Watch take care of some of my qualms with the device, namely thickness and software quirks/slowness/bugs. One of my initial concerns with the device centered around Apple’s inability to focus on a single use case that sold everyone; it’s killer app, so to speak. Back in September of 2014, I stated it as such:

It seems to me that Apple spent too much time on stage discussing everything that the Watch could do and not enough discussing what it should do.

This seems to be the issue to which Dan Frommer was pointing, but Dave Mark responded over at The Loop with the following which mirrors my thoughts:

I look at Dan’s list and think, those are all great things. If my Apple Watch only did those things, it’d be worth every penny and I’d wear it every day, just for that.

Perhaps the killer app(s) on the Apple Watch is exactly the thing that allows it to fit into each of my above definitions: information at a glance and best-in-class fitness tracking. Even if no other novel ideas arise before the release of the device’s second iteration, that may be enough to persuade me.

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