(Smart)watch what happens next

Technology always seeks the next frontier. The search for “the next big thing”, which may be made up of a bunch of little things in a world with billions of people and more billions of things to connect with, is always on – even if we may not need it. Suddenly, the smartwatch has become the next possible big thing being talked about, and the tech players are lining up at the gate.

The rumors of an Apple smartwatch are intensifying, especially given that Apple appears to have backed off on a TV initiative and is desperately in need of a category buster to regain their innovative edge. In this game, nobody can afford to be one-upped. Samsung and Google are forced to respond, saying essentially they are working on smartwatches, too, but with precious few details.

Pundits are scouring patent filings and hiring patterns looking for clues. The quiet disappearance of WIMM Labs, an early pioneer in Android smart watches, into an “exclusive, confidential relationship” in mid 2012 will likely trace to either Samsung or Google. In reality, Google is already in the race with the Motorola MOTOACTV, designed for the fitness enthusiast. Meanwhile, Apple is patenting everything with “wrist” and “app” in the same sentence.

Already in the smartwatch race are one huge company – Sony – and a bunch of upstarts including MetaWatch, Pebble, i’m Watch, and Basis. The Sony SmartWatch and the made-in-Italy i’m Watch (pictured) target the fashion conscious, with design elements shifting the watch-wearer to digital running Android and providing mostly notification services tethered to a phone via Bluetooth. MetaWatch (actually backed by Fossil and TI) and Pebble (the darling of Kickstarters everywhere) are headed more for the appaholic, trying to appeal to developers creating innovative applications and targeting both Android and iOS. Basis is after the emerging mHealth space, with a sensor-packed device delivering 24/7 activity profiling including measuring sleep habits in a move to assess wellness.

For a category buster to emerge, one question has to be answered: what does a smartwatch do better than other devices? In order for consumers to feel the need, beyond just the initial burst of technophiles who have to be the first with anything, the use case has to feel natural.

The fitness enthusiast is used to strapping on a wrist display, and there is a huge push in the direction of Bluetooth – and away from ANT+, which won’t die immediately but will inevitably shrink – making a smartwatch connection between a set of sensors and a smartphone a good fit.

Another good fit is the MP3 player, again powered by Bluetooth with the ability to pair to headphones or speakers over wireless. The days of a single-use music player device (read: iPod Nano) are pretty well doomed, and the interface for a music player is simple enough to drop on a small wrist-worn display. That might push some more casual device users in the direction of a smartwatch, especially an Apple device.

But there are bigger breakthroughs waiting, in areas that smartphones can do but don’t seem really natural for. Consider this:

Maybe, or maybe it is still being defined. What if we put NFC in a smartwatch and used it as the catalyst for digital wallets and access control? You have to admit, it would be much more natural to tap a device already strapped to your wrist than to reach into your pocket, wake the beast, and put it back. The other factor here is really interesting:

The missing manufacturer is: Apple. I’ve shared previously that Apple holds dozens of NFC patents, yet does not have hardware supporting it yet. What if Apple suddenly bursts onto the scene with an NFC-enabled smartwatch, and sets up the delineation between smartphone and smartwatch use cases very clearly?

Think about one application that could really benefit from this: the independent elder. Even if she has a smartphone, Grandma likely would wear a smartwatch, and that could carry so many benefits with it. Sensors could read pulse, respiration, and blood pressure, and also sense orientation and any falling. Notifications could be pushed for medication, and NFC could easily and naturally read a prescription bottle verifying she has the right one. A battery-efficient, always on GPS would have a fix on location at all times. A tethered smartwatch could report its status back through the network to relatives and healthcare providers.

That is just one example. There are more ways to innovate, but if someone succeeds in making the smartwatch must-use instead of just must-have, we’ll see something big happen. This is unlikely to come from the fashion-conscious camp (sorry, Sony). It could come from the small startups creating teaming relationships and new applications, rethinking the problem outside of the smartphone boundaries. Or, it may take the big firms establishing it as a complement to smartphones, but with a clear purpose.

I’m not much on watches, but the Pebble seems interesting since it could take over where my bike computer leaves off. How about you? Is there a particular set of features you’re looking for, or a particular use for a smartwatch that would make it compelling? Or, do you just not see it in your future? Or do you fall into the technophile category, and already have one – what made you invest early? Thoughts welcome.

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  • I don’t know. I don’t even carry a “fondle slab” as a co-worker refers to the smart-phone category. My watch tells me the time and date. I can’t imagine why I’d need to carry a computer on my wrist. Although maybe one day we’ll get our Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio/TVs.