Alex King
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Why Smartwatches Are The Wrong Solution to the Right Problem
SEPTEMBER 8, 2014

Apple is poised to announce its highly anticipated iWatch tomorrow. In the past year or two, we've seen several companies enter the wearable watch sector, including Samsung and LG. Perhaps most notably, Google announced and released Android Wear, a wearable-centric skin for its mobile OS that focused on legibility and usability for small screen sizes of various shapes. The Motorola Moto 360 came out just a few days ago, and many reviews peg it as the best smartwatch yet, with its circular display and excellent build quality. Equally, however, no review I've seen has pronounced it to be a truly game-changing, must-have gadget.

Many predict that Apple's iWatch will be truly revolutionary, though, rather than just an iPod nano-sized device that runs a gimped version of iOS. Rumors include possible deep integration with Apple's HealthKit for measuring various body metrics such as heart rate and step count. Above all, many predict that the design will be unlike anything the public has seen yet. Apple knows that if this is going to be a truly big product, it'll need to have such a minimal and practical design that owners won't mind wearing it on their wrist each day.

Needless to say, it's incredibly exciting. However, I am still unconvinced that smartwatches are necessary. They are certainly a cool gadget novelty, but by setting out to make life more convenient and data-driven, they seem to just get in the way.

At their core, smartwatches are screen extensions for smartphones. Most all of them encourage or require a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone to send and receive data. In the Pebble's case, smartwatches can be as basic as notification screens on the user's wrist. In more imaginative cases, smartwatches can have cameras protruding from one end (such as the Samsung Galaxy Wear) for taking on-the-go pictures. Many have tightly integrated voice control for getting simple information as quickly as possible. Some are introducing health monitors for things like heart rate.

I have not personally owned any smartwatch yet, so I can't truly say if the convenience is worth the asking price. But fundamentally, it seems like smartwatches are trying to solve the "quick access to information" problem by asking customers to pay $200-300 to have a small OLED screen on his or her wrist. It doesn't add up.

I have a watch that I really like wearing, and I would have to be significantly wooed by a feature of a smartwatch to cause me to 1) purchase it and 2) wear it in place of the watch I already own.

Biometrics will undoubtedly be an enormous industry as technology continues to improve. I would love to have rich graphs of my daily heart rate, step count, and other metrics. But after a week or two of understanding what a typical day was like, I'd cease to be entertained. I'd want to wear the device while I exercised. I cannot imagine Apple releasing an iWatch that would be characteristically beautiful, yet still wearable for exercising. I want to be able to wear something that keeps track of my body while I play sports. I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable doing that with the Moto 360.

It does sound extremely convenient for an Android Wear smartwatch user to speak into his or her wrist and say, "OK Google, call me an Uber car" and have it bring a car to that exact location. That is an excellent example of a small, practical app that a smartwatch could implement beautifully. However, what is to say that that type of functionality could not return to the smartphone? It may take a few additional seconds to reach into one's pocket, but couldn't modern voice control services like Siri, Google Now and Cortana be able to complete the same objective? If not, why couldn't apps such as Uber implement a "quick access" mode that provided simple options for someone trying to get something done as fast as possible?

I just can't imagine a scenario where a smartwatch could do something much better than a smartphone could. Smartwatches have incredible novelty, but they are no excuse for ignoring inefficient UI and app design. I want to see Google, Apple and Microsoft focus on making smartphones smarter. Making them more like we imagine what using the perfect smartwatch could be like.

iPhone 6 and iOS 8 will be released soon, too. iOS 8, among other features, brings the ability for 3rd party applications to utilize the fingerprint sensor on the home button. This means any app will soon be able to access sensitive data like credit card numbers without the user entering a password. Shouldn't I be able to take out my phone, hold my finger to the home button, ask Siri to call me a car, and have her go and do it for me, using securely stored payment information? Why wouldn't that be as good, or better, than any smartwatch we've seen?

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