The problem with smart watches: They're watches

Sadly, the focus on technology means that today's wearables aren't solving problems that people actually have

I confess: I own a Pebble Watch. I've also completely bought into the quantitative-self movement and, thus, own a gadget that measures my sleep, three devices that measure my activity, a heart-rate monitor chest strap, and multiple apps on my phone that allow me to see what I am doing and how well I am doing it.

I buy into the wearable revolution, and I've fully come to terms with the Internet of everything slowly taking over my house and life. I fully expect to have an automated house in the future and a car I can monitor from my devices. Yet, with all this, I still believe most device companies have it all wrong.

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It's not that I don't like the idea of a smart watch, but I gave up wearing a watch a decade ago, and only rarely do I put one on. I like my Pebble, which is a great first effort, but it doesn't really solve anything for me. I had a Timex Datalink in the mid-1990s: You held it up to your computer monitor that flashed a pattern of lights to transfer data, assuming you didn't go into an epileptic seizure while it transferred. It was a useful watch because back then PDAs weren't really mainstream, so you could carry your address book around without hooking it into a device.

The issue now: Why would I wear a watch that requires me to take my device out of my pocket to read the message the watch alerts me to? Sure, it's fine when you want to ignore a call and leave the smartphone in your pocket, but if it's a long email or one you need to reply to, out comes the smartphone. Samsung made a point in its Galaxy Gear smartwatch presentation that when you take your Note 3 "phablet" out after seeing a notification on the Gear watch, the phablet displays whatever message the notification was about.

The problem that all these device manufacturers have run into is that they started with the watch. This limits the form factor and therefore the functionality. It can only be so big before it gets bulky, and there is only so much room for a battery and other components. In all these cases, it can't stand alone -- its brain is in another device. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when it brings you back to your smartphone every time, you begin to question why you have the watch in the first place.

Let's look at how these devices should really be created. You have to start with a use case. The reason all those fitness wearables are doing so well is that people care about their health. They buy a Fitbit, Jawbone Up, or Nike Fuelband because they want to track their fitness and improve themselves. For me, it means I avoid elevators whenever possible; instead, I take stairs. I tend to park in the back of the parking lot so I walk farther. I use the data recorded by my device to change my habits and become healthier.

What habit does a smart watch help change? Taking out our phones a little less? Is that what we're looking for? Maybe we want the fitness utility on our wrist and only one device for all the monitors available. Yes, it makes sense to add them to a watch. But what if I could leave my smartphone at home when I exercise and still get all my data and my messages? Now it starts to become useful. What if I didn't need a separate chest strap to get my heart rate while I exercise? That's one fewer device and less hassle.

Here, I'm building a device for me based on my use case. It's why I really don't want my Pebble or Galaxy Gear -- a watch is too inhibiting. I want a wrist-based computer that can last at least a week on a charge, one that can function on its own but adds data to my device ecosystem when I have my smartphone or tablet with me.

I want it to integrate with a smart assistant on my phone and learn who I am. That way, it knows when I'm exercising and when I have to finish so that I can clean up and get to my next appointment. It routes me to the gym because my smart assistant on my smartphone checked the weather and knew it wasn't worth walking in the rain. It integrates with an electronic tattoo that reads my glucose levels and knows when I should grab a snack to keep my metabolism balanced and keep me alert and ready to go. It integrates with my sleep device so that it suggests different foods when I haven't had a lot of sleep to keep me balanced throughout the day.

It's not that I think any of these device companies haven't made some great first tries. It's that most of them weren't trying to solve a human problem -- they were trying to sell more devices. The devices I want and will add to my personal ecosystem are those that allow me to spend my time being smarter and more productive, both at work and at home, not those that just put a piece of hardware on my wrist.

A version of this article, "The problem with smart watches: They're watches," originally appeared at A Screw's Loose and is republished at InfoWorld.com with permission (© Brian Katz). Read more of Brian Katz's The Squeaky Wheel blog at InfoWorld.com or at A Screw's Loose. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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