Who Watches the Smart Watch?

For many consumers, Apple’s recent Apple Watch announcement was their first introduction to the concept of the smartphone.  As with all new but impending Apple products, the anticipation and hype exceeds concrete data and informed opinion – but, still, many expect it to be a hit.  

Apple rarely creates new product categories from scratch – the iPod was not the first mp3 player, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. Apple’s approach generally has been to perfect a new product technology, and allow it to cross the chasm from early niche users to mainstream adoption.  

Likewise, the Apple Watch follows a number of other smart watch and wrist wearable devices.   Back in 2011, you could (and I did) buy a “Metawatch,” which delivered most of the core functionality of a smart watch device.  These core features are:

  • The ability to view and acknowledge SMS messages direct from the watch
  • The ability to view incoming call information and accept or reject calls
  • The ability to receive silent alarms and other notifications – a particularly happy feature for your partner if you frequently have to set pre-dawn wakeup alarms.

These three core features are compelling and, in my opinion, sufficient to justify the purchase of a smart watch.  However, adoption of early smart watches was disappointing – battery life and usability were dubious, for instance. 

The introduction of wearable fitness trackers such as the Fitbit added a second dimension to the wrist wearables.  These devices measure physical activity that can be used to track exercise, encourage a more active lifestyle and also monitor sleep cycles.

Over the past year or so, it’s been clear that the two categories are merging into a single wrist wearable product category.  This new generation of wrist wearables – such as the Samsung Gear and the Microsoft Band – incorporates the core capabilities of the smart watch, together with fitness tracking sensors such pedometer and heart rate monitor.   

Google has created Google Wear, an android-based operating system for wearable devices that includes support for all these features, and vendors such as LG and Motorola have created watches based on this Google OS.  Google Wear is tightly coupled with Google’s predictive “Google Now” system, which provides real time alerts and predictive guidance for appointments, directions, and so on.  Most upcoming smart watches allow for voice search using Google Now, Siri or Microsoft Cortana.

The Apple watch includes all these capabilities and adds features that some believe go beyond what can easily be achieved in the form factor of a watch – for instance, the ability to browse photos and access social network information. The Apple watch also will integrate the Apple Pay system into the watch.  This would allow contactless payments using the watch:  you would be able to pay for purchases simply by holding your wrist near a compatible card reader. 

The relative failure of Google Glass to achieve widespread acceptance has, in some respects, diminished expectations for wearable devices.  But the smart watch contains many of the advantages and few of the disadvantages of Google Glass, and there’s good reason to be optimistic about long-term adoption.

Authentication by smartphone is poised to replace physical keys – already many hotel vendors are installing locks that can be controlled by smartphone – and similar smart locks are expected to become available for cars and homes.  When Apple Pay-type systems become more widespread, the phone can replace your wallet or purse as well, and the smart watch could become a more natural vector for this trend.  The smart watch can perform continuous biometric validation (through pulse signatures and other cues), and is always at hand – or at least, at wrist.  Coupled with the ability to continually monitor health and fitness, and perhaps even the ability to include basic phone capability, we see real advantages to be had as smart watches mature.