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On Smart Things

I don't often write about current events anymore and, ironically, I'll tell you why later. Today, I wanted to discuss smart wearables, which, when I started writing this post, was current events. I have written before about the fact that I use a Pebble smartwatch—which surprises some due to my general preference for Apple products—and Pebble recently announced a whole array of new devices in the wearable space in the attempt to keep themselves relevant in an exceedingly competitive field. However, even people who own smartwatches, have taken to complaining about smartwatches recently, so it makes sense that Pebble’s more recent foray into wearables is heavily focused on one of its best use cases: fitness. Nevertheless, I feel that smart wearables are the future for a variety of reasons and after discussing the topic with my wife, I think other people do, too.

Below I have listed the reasons why I currently enjoy using a smartwatch, in my case a Pebble Time Round. This list is constantly changing due to the wonderful work of adventurous developers, which is why I continue to use my smartwatch day after day.

  • Fitness tracking
  • Sleep tracking
  • Smart alarms
  • Notifications
    • From the phone
    • From my watch
  • Checking the weather
  • Changing the thermostat
  • Timers/stopwatch/other time related duties
    • Go figure! It's a watch.
  • Quick news checks
  • Sports
  • Automation
    • Initiate IFTTT actions

After listing all these items, one would think it is hard to understand why the majority of consumers don’t see the benefit of such devices. I think the issue of story and purpose still remain for the majority of potential smart wearable consumers. People don't know why they would want or need them and they are not willing to pay a high up front cost to find out. Pebble is competitive because they can offer a low cost of entry and a set of devices that require little discussion to see their utility; they are watches first with an always-on screen and good battery life relative to their competitors. Smartwatches often lack the watch portion and have issues lasting more than a day at a time, which makes them inferior to their non-smart counterparts.

I believe this is a problem of marketing, even where Apple, the master marketer, is concerned. It is hard to believe that most consumers, seeing the above list, wouldn’t want a wearable that could make their lives easier. My wife and I discussed her getting an Apple Watch and she asked me simply, “What makes it better than the fitness tracker I am wearing?” Heart rate monitor was my first item of note, something her Misfit Shine does not have. I then began to formulate the above list and thought it odd that I had to be the one to explain it to her at all; I normally would have just pulled up an Apple ad and let it do its magic.

But smart wearables make sense because they become what you need them to be. Watches in their non-fashion sense were disrupted long ago by phones, so smartwatches didn't need to disrupt the watch industry, they needed (and continue to need) to disrupt the bare-wrist industry. Now that I have owned a smartwatch for as long as I have, I can't imagine wearing something on my wrist that tracked my steps without giving me any further utility. And I think most smartwatches on the market can provide that level of utility as long as people know it.

I wrote a post awhile ago about a day with an Apple Watch and my life since having a Pebble has been about what I expected. Each morning, I wake up to my smart alarm, which bases its information of when I should wake up on two factors: my preferred wake up time and the watch's sleep tracking analysis of when I am in my lightest stage of sleep at most 30 minutes before my preferred wake up time. The nice thing about the alarm is that it's a vibration and therefore doesn't wake my wife and children. Around that same time in the morning I get a notification from my phone about the weather for the day.

Notifications from my phone are separate on the above list from notifications from my watch because I have separate apps that provide me information during the day. When an app has a native version for the watch specifically, I almost always prefer that over my phone’s simplistic notifications, mostly due to the notifications being actionable; this is a limitation of the Pebble, not of smartwatches in general. Some of these native apps include the likes of calendars, ESPN and TV Show trackers, often because they integrate well with the Pebble’s timeline/calendar-based interface.

I get both types of notifications throughout the day. Phone calls and text messages, email alerts and reminders, each from my phone to my wrist. Calendar events, timers, fitness information, and the start of a baseball game all appear based on my local preferences on the watch itself.

Of course, I have a wrist-worn device to tell me the time. I’m an analog watch type of person and I mostly stick with a few watch faces that provide me with a minimalist design coupled with efficient communication of information through complications when necessary or desired.

To someone who doesn’t want something on their wrist, the last couple paragraphs are not what will sell them on the idea. There is an experiential piece that is hard to nail down in this format. However, when I don’t have the device on my wrist and I get a notification (hearing a sound or feeling a vibration in my pocket) or want to check the time, my first thought is no longer to pull my phone out, it’s to look at my wrist.

Convenience is one thing, but a better understanding of oneself is another. Smartwatches and other wearable devices are better at some things (like fitness and distraction-free notifications) than phones will ever be. No one should expect these devices to replace phones entirely and in my opinion those software “innovations” that are pushing the needle in that direction are simply misguided.

Lastly, as the Apple Watch and smartwatches of its ilk get better—no matter how one defines that adjective in this case—there is no doubt in my mind that they will have the ubiquity that smartphones do because they have the ability to become what smartphones can’t: 24/7 health monitors. But perhaps that idea is for another time.