What to look for in a smart watch

The Apple and Google smart watches don't even exist, yet they're the talk of the town. Here's what they should deliver

By the time Apple, Samsung, or Google ships a fabled smart watch, assuming either has such a product in the works, the fad may be long over. Or it may then become a real fad, not just a theoretical one discussed by bloggers. The initial emotional appeal is obvious: Techies like tech, and although the "Dick Tracy" comic series is from the distant past (the 1930s), its iconic radio wristwatch still lives in popular culture. It's the original smart watch.

What to look for in a smart watch

In fall 2010, Apple sold a small-square iPad Nano, and enterprising souls started selling wristbands for it, so it could be worn like a watch. Other enterprising souls provided digital watch faces to download to the iPod Nano, which Apple happily sold through its App Store. (For younger readers, a watch is a usually single-function timepiece worn on your wrist. In the pre-cellphone era, we used them to tell time. They were also one of the few culturally acceptable forms of jewelry for men.)

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Sony produced its SmartWatch around the same time, and it continues to sell the Android-based device. There's also the Android-derived I'm Watch. Yet these commercial device get little attention. Instead, a bunch of startup providers have drawn the most attention, notably Wimm Labs' Wimm One prototype smart watch, which I tested, and the still-not-shipping Pebble in spring 2012. More recently, a parade of Indiegogo and Kickstarter projects have promised to create a smart watch if enough investors send in their money.

Apple stopped selling the small-square version of the iPod Nano in fall 2012, introducing the no-screen iPod Shuffle at the same size and making the Nano bigger -- definitely not wrist-friendly. Was Apple making space for a future smart watch, or did it decide there was no potential payoff in the idea? Only Apple knows, but the resurrected rumors of the last few weeks is that the company has begun aggressively hiring iWatch development staff for a 2014 or 2015 launch. Apple rumors are more often false than true, but they've spawned gossip that Google, Samsung, and Microsoft too have smart watches in development. (If the rumors say Apple will do something, more whispers always say its competitors will then copy Apple.)

In the meantime, Wimm Labs ended its Wimm One prototype sales to developers in summer 2012, saying it had licensed the technology to an unnamed company. "Stay tuned" was the basic message. (UPDATE: On August 30, Google confirmed it bought Wimm Labs.)

What good would a smart watch be? Some uses are obvious, and exist in the Sony, I'm Watch, and Wimm devices:

  • A clock, obviously
  • An alert of an incoming call, complete with caller ID and the ability to accept the call by tapping the screen -- presumably, while you're wearing your Bluetooth headset or have it connected to your car stereo, though the wristwatch alert could be useful for walkers to decide if they want to fish their phones out of their pockets or purses
  • An alert of an upcoming appointment, again like what a smartphone does but without having to pull it from your pocket or purse, or check it while driving in a Siri-less car
  • The current weather, in case you're indoors and soon to head out
  • Basic updates such as recent tweets and other social posts

In other words, a smart watch as initially conceived is a second screen to the alerts on your smartphone. It's useful, but I'm not sure that's enough to create demand beyond the geek community.

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