By the time Apple ships its rumored 'iWatch' smartwatch, it will be entering an already crowded market. That's a good thing, says columnist Mike Elgan.
By the time Apple ships its rumored "iWatch" smartwatch, the company will be entering a crowded market.
A smartwatch is a wristwatch device that connects to the Internet (directly or via a smartphone) and runs apps.
The Financial Times this week reported that Google's Android group (not the company's X Lab) is developing a smartwatch. That suggests Google plans to ship a smartwatch soon, possibly this year, and could even announce it at the Google I/O developers conference on May 15.
A Samsung executive this week not only announced that his company is working on a smartwatch, but that they've been working on it for a long time.
A Chinese company called Gouke plans to sell both an Android version of its Bambook Smart Watch by this summer as well as another version running the Firefox OS.
Sony sells a smartwatch actually branded the " SmartWatch," which the company updated this week with new watch faces as well as a notification previews feature. Sony says there are more than 200 apps on the Google Play store specifically designed for the Sony SmartWatch.
A startup called Pebble Technology shipped in January its Pebble E-Paper Watch, a project crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The Pebble has a black-and-white E-paper screen and connects to an Android or iOS device via Bluetooth.
Pundits, journalists and bloggers are writing a lot about the new smartwatch category. But almost everything they're predicting about the future of smartwatches is wrong.
Here are the 8 biggest myths about the coming smartwatch revolution.
Myth #1: There won't be a smartwatch revolution.
In fact, the revolution looks almost certain.
Every major consumer electronics company will sell at least one, and competition to develop the most attractive watches with the best features at the lowest prices, combined with breathtaking new technology, will result in a consumer-electronics category filled with choice, innovation and amazing new applications.
Smartwatches will be irresistible.
Myth #2: Smartwatches will fail because nobody wears watches anymore.
Smartwatches don't fail because nobody wears watches. Nobody wears watches because smartwatches fail to thrill consumers with the right combination of features, performance and price. But the new generation of smartwatches will prove so compelling that people will be happy to wear watches again.
Myth #3: Smartwatches are for people too lazy to take the phone out of their pockets.
A strange assumption has emerged that smartwatches will exist to merely duplicate a subset of the features on a smartphone. As a result, smartwatches are already being dismissed as an over-priced luxury item for people too lazy to pull their phone out of their pocket.
The Sony SmartWatch offers a number of features, including messaging, calendar notifications and social media access. (Image: Sony)
This is wrong on two counts. First, smartwatches will, in fact, duplicate the functionality of smartphones to some degree. But they'll also enable new functions and new behaviors that are difficult to predict, as always happens with new platforms. Just think of all the unpredicted applications and uses for the iPad.
Second, laziness has nothing to do with it. Whenever a new convenience replaces something that's already pretty easy it always looks extravagant and unnecessary.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine from France viewed ATMs as evidence of how lazy Americans were. At the time, ATMs were more common in the United States than in France. Only a few years later ATMs would become universal, not only in France but throughout the world. Their use has nothing to do with laziness. When a better way to do something comes along, everybody does it.
Myth #4: Smartwatches are bulky.
So-called smartwatches have been around for many years. In general, they've all been far bulkier than conventional wristwatches. And that bulkiness has made them unacceptable for professional business wear.
Three technologies will make future smartwatches far less bulky. The first is E-ink or E-paper technology, which is lo-rez and monochrome, but very thin and easy on batteries (and therefore doesn't require a large, bulk-inducing battery.)
The second is curved glass, especially Corning's Willow Glass technology, which is not only curvable because of its flexibility, but also thin and light. Curved glass can change the shape of a wristwatch so that even if there's a lot of surface area and electronics there are fewer edges and corners to stick out and make it appear more bulky.
And third is the new Bluetooth 4.0, which uses so much less power that a large battery is not required.
Myth #5: Smartwatches are dorky.
The smartwatch revolution is actually a subset of the much larger wearable computing revolution. We can expect wearable computing glasses like Google Glass and wearable computing clothing, such as jackets, computers built into helmets, goggles, gloves, shoes -- you name it.
The least dorky version of wearable computing will be the smartwatch.
Myth #6: Apple won't ship a smartwatch until curved glass technology is ready in two years.
The rumor about Apple's assumed smartwatch is connected to the idea that Apple must and will use curved glass. So when Corning announced that their Willow Glass technology won't be ready for two years, many assumed that Apple would wait for it before shipping a smartwatch.
But this is flawed reasoning.
New technologies, especially those that require new manufacturing processes, have to be explored and developed years in advance of actual shipping. But that early work has absolutely no relationship to versions of a product that don't have the new technology.
Pebble e-paper watches connect to iPhone and Android smartphones using Bluetooth. (Image: Pebble)
If some reporter had inside information in 2006 that Apple was exploring the possibilities of a smartphone using Bluetooth 4.0, he or she would be mistaken to conclude that Apple would wait until Bluetooth 4.0 before shipping any smartphone. In fact, the first iPhone shipped 2007, but the first Bluetooth 4.0 iPhone didn't come out until 2011.
Apple could ship an "iWatch 1.0" without curved glass years before creating one with Corning's new curved glass technology.
Myth #7: Smartwatches will have to be charged every day.
Thanks to Bluetooth 4.0, new low-powered screens, low-powered mobile processors, better batteries and better management software, I think the minimum amount of time that most smartwatches will last between charges is one week. Some may last a month.
Myth #8: Smartwatches are only peripheral devices for smartphones.
The smartwatch revolution hasn't started yet, but already the boundaries between electronic devices like phones, tablets, laptops, PCs and TVs are breaking down.
Smartwatches will not only integrate with phones but also TVs, car dashboards and more. In addition, we're also entering into an era of smart virtual assistants that we interact with by talking.
The smartwatch concept, which can provide a microphone, an Internet connection via a smartphone and a display for results, is an ideal and handy interface for talking to Siri, Google Now and other virtual assistant services.
Google Now -- which, combined with that company's Android@Home initiative -- will probably enable voice control of home appliances from any Internet connected device.
The way to think of a smartwatch is not as a peripheral to a phone but as an interface to all our home appliances, computers, remote supercomputers and the Internet.
It's time to get excited about the smartwatch revolution, people. It's coming soon, and it's going to be incredible.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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