Smart Watches: Is wearable tech really wearable?

by | Nov 9, 2015 | News, Technology

With all the hype around the launch of these things you would think everyone ​would be going crazy for smart watches​ and anything wearable with a data connection for that matter. ​Hindsight is 20:20 though and it is easy to dismiss the disappointing figures as a sign that wearables are over, were a fad and are a flop.​ Funny old world where selling 10M+ of any object [Apple Watch] is somehow a laughable failure.

I start​ed writing​ this post 12 months ago when the smart watch hype machine was at fever pitch​ from somewhat a defensive position​. ​This draft sat in my outbox for a year until I noticed it this morning, being a lazy sod I am just going to use the vantage point a year’s passage has afforded me to make minor edits.

​I am slightly obsessed with mechanical watches, especially those featuring a tourbillon. At one point I felt horology itself was under threat, but I am no​w sure the age old brands aren’t worried in the slightest about a wave of wearable computers that keep you in touch with everything from emails to social media to Yelp reviews.

It’s easy to assume that smart watches are the next logical step, and will render ​timeless classic​ models​ like the Royal Oak and Yachtmaster​ obsolete. Quartz watches came on the scene in the early 1970’s and they quickly eschewed mechanical watches from wrists and into dresser drawer presentation boxes.

Have smart watches made us all look ridiculous for loving little machines that tick?​ Or are the people strapping mini computers that lack the power or battery life to have any real function the ones being sniggered about?​

The marketing hype machine has been formidable, but if you look at the products themselves, there isn’t a single game changer that presents an existential threat real watches. Take the most talked about device in wearable tech so far, Google Glass. Ignoring the fact that if you wear Glass you’re immediately laughed at and marginalized as a privacy-hating, fashion criminal – does it actually do anything that a smartphone doesn’t? You won’t look like an adopter so much as a one eyed baby boomer.

Smart watches have the same serious style flaws, to the point I ask will smart watches be the death of smart watches rather than the death of real watches​ if no serious timepiece arises​.

They do nothing better than any mid-range smartphone, and plenty worse. The form factor dictates the screen has to be so small its either unreadable or carries so little information to be pointless. To cap that the battery is worse than first generation smartphones.

A whole day without plugging your wrist in? Good luck.  

That small size presents another problem, how does one actually interact with the damn thing? Push buttons do not lend the rich, varied interaction experiences we are now used to and the screen is so small that touching it blocks visibility of what you are interacting with – let’s not pretend you can easily swipe anything on a watch.

The difficult one to quantify is styling. I admit beauty is subjective, but every smart watch design is a choice between a screen strapped to the wrist that is akin to a colour Casio.

Perhaps the approach is fundamentally flawed. All of these products are trying to reproduce the smartphone experience on the wrist when maybe they should be trying to create a new experience that is compelling in its own right – something new. Apple didn’t turn the phone game on its head because it put the computer experience in your hand, it created a new and modern phone experience that pulled in some computing features.

In terms of a crisis in watch making, I don’t think collectors or fans of mechanical watches have anything to worry about. We buy and wear mechanical watches because we think they are cool and say something about us; a subtle nod to others that are ‘in the know’.

A smart watch, no matter how great the interface or aesthetics is a mass market commodity item and is likely to suffer the same fate that befell iPhones; they can only feel premium and exclusive as long as few people have them. The exclusivity and scarcity that makes the watch market tick might stop the smart watch market ever getting off the ground.