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Previous USAToday Columns

March 19, 2015
Microsoft Windows: Not dead yet

March 5, 2015
MWC 2015: It was all about connected wearables

February 11, 2015
High tech and the laggard effect

anuary 29, 2015
Microsoft Hololens and the evolution of computing

January 15, 2015
Commentary: Tech device diversity set to explode with IoT

2014 USAToday Columns

USAToday Column

April 2, 2015
Smartwatches: The New Smartphones Jr.?

By Bob O'Donnell

Foster City, CA—If you take a quick look at most of the smart watches that are shipping or soon to be available, it’s pretty easy to come to a simple conclusion. Most of them are trying to be a smaller, more readily accessible version of a smartphone. My question is, why?

On the one hand, I get it. Smartphones have quickly become the most widely used and arguably the most important devices that people own, so there’s a logical argument for wanting to extend that importance and ease of use even further. By placing on our wrists the kinds of notifications and simple app functions that smartphones offer, we can more quickly and easily glance at that information.

In certain situations, a smart watch could save us from having to reach into our pockets or purses to have to look at the screen or perform some kind of simple action. That could actually be pretty useful, especially in an era of increasingly larger smartphones. Those of us with those larger phones have probably all been in situations where it’s been a bit challenging to yank it out of a pocket or bag in order to see what all the buzzing was about.

Additionally, one of the most interesting benefits I’ve noticed in my experiments with wearables is that they can actually help avoid missing calls, texts, and other notifications as they arrive. We’ve all been in relatively loud or busy environments where we’ve missed something on our smartphones—despite turning up the ringer or turning on vibration mode. Interestingly, because of the sensitivity of our wrists, I’ve found that it’s less common with a wearable that provides vibrating feedback when you receive some kind of message. This isn’t likely to be the main reason people choose to buy or use a wearable, but I’m willing to bet it becomes one of the most unexpected benefits for many.

The recognition of this simple, useful advantage brings me back to my original question. While I do understand the desire to extend a smartphone’s capabilities to your wrist, is it really necessary to do so in such a literal manner? To put it another way, how much interaction am I going to be able to have with a screen about the size of a silver dollar? Or, frankly, why do I need an LCD screen on a smart watch at all?

The questions come down to understanding what role a smart watch, or any intelligent device worn on your wrist, can or should play. It seems to me it boils down to input and output, or data collection and notification.

One thing wrist-worn wearables can definitely do is take advantage of the physical contact with your body and leverage sensors that can “collect” that data: whether that be heart rate, perspiration, oxygen levels in your blood, activity and motion, sleep patterns, environmental conditions, or your unique identity. While smartphones have some of these kinds of sensors, this is one place where wearables have a clear advantage.

For notifications, the most obvious delivery method is a screen, but that isn’t the only one. As mentioned earlier, vibration-like haptic feedback can be used to let you know something’s been received. Importantly, there can easily be more than one type of this physical feedback to let you distinguish between different types of notifications: a single short burst for a text, two for a phone call, etc. Plus, these more subtle notifications can help avoid frequent wrist glances, which are likely to become as blatantly obvious as staring at your smartphone screen in social situations.

A few lesser-known smart watches have me thinking about what a smart watch actually could be, because they enable sensor input (motion and sleep tracking) in a completely unconventional, nearly invisible way. The $450 Withings Activite includes sensors behind a traditional watch face and offers an analog, mechanical dial to give you feedback on percentage of steps taken in a day or other metrics that you choose to monitor on the companion smartphone app (both iOS and Android versions are available). The watch includes a Bluetooth LE radio that it uses to communicate with the smartphone, and because it lacks a digital display, its battery life is measured in months instead of hours.

Another interesting new example comes from Switch watchmaker Frederique Constant, who partnered with Silicon Valley company FullPower Technologies on what they call the Swiss Horological Smartwatch. Conceptually similar to the Activite, the roughly $1,000-$1,300 (depending on finish) Frederique Constant offering, which will be available in June, features an even more classic watch design and a full-featured companion app (also available for iOS and Android).

As a traditional watch wearer, the elegance of these approaches is appealing to me. Plus, I’m intrigued by the idea of making technology less visible, as opposed to the more obvious visible option of yet another screen to look at. I do wish they had more notification support, but I’m hopeful we’ll see these types of capabilities added to similar designs.

Now admittedly, the design question is where smart watches become incredibly subjective and veer into areas where there simply is no right answer. (And if I’ve learned one thing about the smart watch category, it’s clear that it is much more like fashion or clothing when it comes to the range of choices and tastes that people are likely to have.) Some people clearly prefer a more obvious tech look, but as the wearable/smart watch category develops, I think it’s important to bear in mind that we shouldn’t necessarily think of these devices as mini smartphones.

Bob O'Donnell is founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community.

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