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Friday, 27 September 2013

Why a smart watch will not replace a real watch

Mobile devices have re-defined the technology we use daily, and how we use it. In the process, they have substituted many devices that were fairly popular and indispensable in our lives earlier. Tablets have jeopardised the PC market and killed the netbook. The ubiquitous mobile phone camera has virtually stalled the growth of entry-level digicams, a category that was earlier hugely popular. And even before this, the MP3 player and the cheap portable FM player went into decline as the most basic mobile phone is able to deliver the same functionality. Anyone still uses an alarm clock? Unlikely, as your mobile phone can fulfil the same function.

It's been a different story with watches. Though the mobile constantly displays the time (and thanks to the new breed of voice assistants like Siri, it can even tell you the time), chances are you never once thought of replacing your  watch with your mobile. And it is unlikely that you will. There are two reasons why. 

One reason is that watches transcend functionality to enter the zone of aesthetics and fashion. The kind of watch that you wear makes a statement about you, your financial status, your personality and your taste - as much as an automobile does. Most of us when we select a watch, try to balance between our personality and the practical aspect. If it's a dress watch, the bracelet or strap may hold greater appeal than the legibility of the dial. And if it's a watch for work, you probably try to balance the design with a readable interface. The watch is a fashion and even a luxury accessory and you can change it constantly to suit different situations. The ubiquitous mobile device cannot really do that. 

The other reason is that watches offer a real functionality that is invaluable in a time-scarce world - of telling you the time constantly, unobtrusively and in any setting. This is something that a mobile device can never really substitute. Two days ago I made a realisation when I went to a watch service centre to change the battery in my Swatch, after four years of use. I love my watch because its a reliable device. And I don't have to worry about charging it every night. 

Now, finally the smart device makers are taking the watch head-on. Starting with the much publicised crowd-funded Pebble Smartwatch, to Sony and Samsung's latest offerings, down to the rumored Apple iWatch. What are these devices going to do?

Where the smartphone manufacturer's are concerned, the smartwatch aims to extend the usage and appeal of the core device. So a smartwatch transfers certain functionalities to your wrist (like answering calls, making voice memos, measuring activity level, pulse rate etc.). It can also offer handy functionalities like weather, compass etc. There has to be a balance between use situations and battery life - ideally it should go for 1-2 weeks without a charge. My biggest concern is battery life - not just of the watch, but of your phone, which needs to sync with the apps on the watch.

Watches are indispensable to people who undertake outdoor activities - trekkers, surfers, sportspeople, aviators and more. And they are designed to work with precision under the most challenging conditions. I doubt if smart watches can do that.

The smart watch is not a new to the world concept like Google Glass. It tries to add on to the functionality of a watch and it tries to extend the smartphone functionality to your wrist - my closest analogy is the remote controls of the car music player embedded onto the steering wheel. 

The question also arises - will people substitute the smart watch for their real watch? Perhaps not. Will they wear an additional device? Yes, they probably will, if like regular watches, the smartwatches are customisable to age, personality, tastes etc. 

I think that health and fitness apps will be one of the biggest selling points for a smartwatch. In fact, watch manufacturers have avoided integrating such apps because battery life takes an unacceptable hit. But as an add-on device, smart watches can easily take this on. A wrist worn device can do a better job of measuring activity than a phone. A stealth voice recorder is a nifty function.

Any voice enabled functionality - reading out a shopping list, reading mails aloud or making and receiving calls - will also work, provided it works smoothly. I would not like to stand in a crowded place, talking to my watch and looking funny!

Today the smart watch is a device which has a novelty appeal but it remains to be seen how adoption will fare when that wears off. Definitely it would pay off to think of more innovative ways to increase device usage.