By Stefano on December 4th, 2012
As a gentleman of discerning taste and impeccable grooming you are probably wearing a watch. It is likely to have been made by a high-end Swiss company and quite possibly cost you a fair bit of money.
If that is you the you are in fact part of a dying breed. Male watch wearers have been on the decline for several years now and there are many good reasons why. Firstly the economy. With many people watching their cash watches are often seen as a luxury that ultimately we can do without.
Secondly you simply can’t escape from devices that tell you the time. Even bus shelters let you know not just how long it is until the next 73 but also what the time is right now and how late you are going to be.
The overwhelming reason though for the decline in watch wearing is that it is one of many gadgets that has been usurped by the mobile phone. I bought my first mobile in 1997, which was around the time I stopped wearing watches on a regular basis. I have bought a few since, but they reside in a draw in my room and only appear on special occasions.
Nope if I want to know what the time is I pull out my phone, or if I am at home, my iPad. From a functional perspective there really is no need for me to own one.
SPOT and the early smart watches
The first whiff of change came a decade or so ago when a flurry of smart watches that appeared that added brought live data and gadget functionality to the wrist. Microsoft unveiled something called SPOT technology which drew in basic info like traffic details and the weather via FM transmissions. In spite of a hard core geeky fan club though SPOT never really took off.
I also remember a flurry of watch MP3 players like this one from Casio. There were also watch cameras too and I remember Sir Paul McCartney getting very excited about wearing one and sharing all his images with the press. There was also a Casio MP3 watch which received lots of press coverage, but attracted very few purchasers.
More recently has seen the growth of mobile phone watches which team up with Bluetooth headsets and enable the user to make and receive phone calls as well do basics like send text messages. The market leader here appears to be sWaP whose range can be bought SIM free in the UK via Amazon.
But it is only now that the smart watch has come of age and now shows signs of going mainstream. There are two reasons for this. Firstly the technology that enables watches to communicate with smart phones has matured to point whereby exciting data (ie your latest Facebook updates!) can be ported to the watch’s screen. Secondly our growing desire to archive every area of our lives – from the number of steps we take to the messages we send – has meant a renaissance in wearable technology and the wrist is a great place to keep a device to ensure that it is easy to access.
The new generation of smart watches
A great example of how smart watch technology is heading is the I’m Watch from Italy. This teams up with any number of smartphones (iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile) via a Bluetooth connection to deliver a huge selection of features. You can do the basics, make and receive calls, send text messages etc. But you can also use it to get updates from social networks, see your email, play music, check the weather and more. There are also developers working on new features to add to the watch.
The I’m Watch has its rivals. Sony’s Liveview, and the just launched Cookoo, both of which have fewer features but are significantly cheaper and may have great mass appeal.
Then there is the Pebble which gives you access to lots of apps so that you can turn your watch into a cycle computer or fitness performance analyser.
Almost all of the watches let you customise the face too, and you can even opt for an old school analogue type fascia.
You can bet too that companies who pioneered gadget watches like Swatch, are monitoring the new breed of devices and will be working on partnerships and developing their own products very soon.
Is the iWatch next?
There is one company though that could seriously propel smart watches into the mainstream – you guessed it Apple. Having sewn up the smartphone and tablet markets there is a huge amount of speculation as to where the company will be turning its attention to next. Some critics believe that Apple’s focus will be reinventing TV. However if it wants to explode a maturing market smart watches would be a sensible move. The reach would be huge and the watch would be complementary to Apple’s existing range of devices.
Apple is especially good at coming up with interfaces and operating systems that make devices easier to use. What bigger challenge could there be than making that tiny screen useful? Maybe Siri could play an important role? Secondly Apple is also genius at creating products that excite consumers. If anyone is going to be able to produce a gorgeous hi-tech watch it has to be Apple.
Finally Apple has a great track record of taking nascent technologies and perfecting them so that they are mass market friendly.
In some way the company has already done the groundwork in that iPad nano has the screen size of a smart watch and already has many of its features. All it would need to do would be for Apple to add a Bluetooth connection to the iPhone that enables the nano to access data and it would have a smart watch.
So, for any gadget lover a smart watch sounds like a no brainer. Except that there are a few significant obstacles that will have to overcome before they become mass market.
The biggest is battery life. Most smart watches need a recharge every few days and do you really want another device you have to power up.
Then there’s the making and receiving calls process. Apparently none of us are especially keen on being Dick Tracey and having a conversation via our watches.
Then there is the frustration of being able to access information but not really responding it. To reply to that tweet or email you will probably still have to get out your mobile.
Finally smart watch makers need to get design right. Producing watches that will appeal to techy boys and girls is one thing. Creating a timepiece that has the elegance and sophistication of say a Tag is another.
Over to you Jonathan Ive.
In the meantime here are the watches mentioned in the article.
Sony Liveview smart watch £70
The highest profile smart watch so far the Sony watch gives you updates from Facebook, Twitter, email and more. It will also play any tunes you have on your phone and there are a series of other apps that you can download. It works with Android phones only at the moment.