Thoughts on Smartwatches: 2016 and Beyond

There has been much ado about smart watches over the last year with Apple and Google doing their best to feel out the product and there is a real temptation to compare smart watches to smart phones.I feel like that is wrong-headed. The term “smartphone” is really kind of a misnomer because these devices in our pockets are portable computers. I’d even hazard to guess that the Phone “app” is probably among the least-used app on people’s smartphones these days. Apple’s “There’s an App for that” was a widely popular marketing campaign when the iPhone 3G came out and it really does an excellent job at summarizing what makes a smartphone truly a revolutionary device: apps. In fact, a smartphone without apps is a borderline non-starter no matter how awesome the core operating system is as highlighted in the case of Windows Phone 10. The problem is that this interaction model does not translate to a smart watch. A smartwatch is a fundamentally a “push” type of interaction model vs a “pull” that you get with a smartphone as you pull yourself into apps.

Google Now does a good job with a “Push” interface

A smart watch has limited screen size because it’s attached to your body, but it gains a number of advantages at the same time. Because of this size limitation you cannot display a proper keyboard, cannot show more than an SMS-length of text on the screen and photos and video are almost universally unsatisfactorily experiences that you cannot show anybody else without taking your watch off. A smartwatch is a deeply personal device because it’s attached to your body most of the day and physically it is a reflection of your style much more than a smartphone. As a typical IT-geek I went with the nice-looking, but comfortable stainless steel with black sports band. The design I chose was a mix of function/comfort with the sports band with the nicer body of the stainless steel. If I went to more formal occasions I would probably buy a leather band or if I made a Googler’s salary maybe even the stainless steel link bracelet. Also, being attached to your body its theoretically always with you to deliver timely information and collect information such as heartbeat and other fitness data throughout the day.

One day I too well have a fancy leather band

Like a traditional watch, a smart watch is a piece of jewelry that also has a very practical application. The world’s currency has really been time since the industrial revolution and a traditional watch for years has served to help people provision their time throughout the day. It also signals to others that somebody’s time is valuable to them as well. Given that legacy, a smart watch must do something that a traditional watch does not do and go above and beyond it to justify its existence. It needs to give back time as opposed to just help somebody see what time it is and them have to do the mental work. A $15 watch from Walmart can preform just as well as a $300 smartwatch if that is the bar you are setting.

SmartWatches like the Apple Watch needs a good reason to exist beyond managing time. It needs to give it back

Speaking of time, today’s world is ruled by notifications now. We are inundated with them throughout the day with our phones. Just think for a moment how many texts, Facebook notifications, Tweets, Slack messages, ESPN updates, game alerts, and whatnot you get on a daily. I, like many others, have notification fatigue. Things like notification centers were created as a way to handle this notification overload and Apple centralized management on iOS to streamline things even further. I think the primary function of a smart watch should be to filter notifications to only the most relevant and timely alerts. I think in this regard Google got it right by basing their Android Wear OS around Google Now, which’s primary purpose in life is to do just that. A smartwatch is too small of a screen and you really do not want to be tied up trying to launch apps from it (especially given Apple’s awkward app launcher that looks like a pile of messy laundry). Apple advertises this cluttered mess as the primary UI, but really it’s the watch face that is the Apple Watch’s home screen and the Notification Center that is the main what you get around.

Android does actionable notifications well

I think that Apple should throw away glances in WatchOS 3.0 and focus on overhauling the Notification Center on the Watch because that is the real way that one launches apps and gets information. Maybe take a page from the Pebble Color and have a timeline-like UI that you can scroll back and forth between notifications in a history with the Digital Crown. Apps are nice because they enhance what you can do with notifications, but focusing solely on apps as the solution to the problem is putting the cart before the horse. They are need to work on brining more proactive features on the Watch even if means working more like Google Now and Cortana. Yes, Apple is all about personal privacy, but it I am willing to part with a little personal privacy for convenience. I think they should take a page from Cortana and have a notebook like they have settings for Privacy already.

Cortana’s digital notebook feature is a good way to manage what data you share with the service

Another thing the Apple Watch really needs to do in 2016 is market itself as the physical digital assistant that you carry with you. I think that having Siri’s physically being represented the Watch would serve to humanize the abstract and potentially creepy idea of a digital assistant. People would walk into a store, choose the watch style that they think calls to them whether that is a functional sports model of classy stainless steel body and then be greeted by this digital assistant to be with them throughout the day. Instead of using the cloud to sync data around Siri should connect to your iPhone and pull data from that. It’s less powerful than what a Google data center could do, but with Apple’s 3rd party app ecosystem on the iPhone feeding Siri data I think Apple could leverage that to their advantage. If Apple let 3rd parties integrate into this idea of Siri being your digital assistant on your wrist they could effectively construct a Google Now experience without having to build everything themselves or take the personal hit for being creepy or invasive.

I feel like advertising itself a physical assistant that helps you throughout the day would humanize this entire concept and really help people understand the utility of a smartwatch and humanize the whole concept of a digital assistant because at the end of the day I think that’s where smartwatches should be going. Today they are managing the style, fitness, and notifications aspect of things, but now it’s time to bring a real value-add to the package. A smartwatch as your proactive, personal assistant throughout the day would elevate smartwatches from gadget watches into something truly useful.

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