So it’s been a long time since I last wrote and I don’t have a good excuse for that… family life has been busy, work is hectic, I’m too heads down, my vitamin D is low, yada yada. Truth is, I just haven’t felt like writing.
However, that does not mean I have stopped thinking and experiencing. Like many of you I have been following the wearables category with great interest, in part because it represents a huge growth segment for end user devices and infrastructure to support them. The bigger reason for my enthusiasm is that these devices have the capacity to greatly enhance our experiences with technology.
Last year my wife got me a Moto360 and despite being kind of particular (snobbish) about watches I have to say I was looking forward to this device. It looks like a traditional watch and has nice build quality, including a well made leather strap. It looks and feels nice on my wrist.
I used the watch for over a month straight and came to some conclusions that I believe apply to the entire category. Smartwatches are inherently limited in capability because of form factor (you can only pack so much hardware in one), the telecom infrastructure that limits the ability to have multiple devices paired to one mobile number, and battery capacity. As such, the majority of vendors who are putting these out have opted for a paradigm of the watch being an extension of the smartphone for notifications and voice activated engagement.
The way these interactions work is actually pretty cool, in the case of the Android at least. The basic operating mode is that you do something on the phone and the phone will react to the watch with the full UX of the smartphone. For example, “ok google…. navigate to 650 Townsend St.” and the phone will pick up with the maps app loaded with the desired address and navigation underway.
This is actually a really useful interaction providing that the voice function on the watch works as it should. As anyone who has used Siri or Google Now on a busy street or with your kids chattering away in the car knows… voice is good when you have a low noise environment.
The limitations of voice commands impacts many of the other functions of the watch where the smartphone is playing a background role, such as note taking. We’re in the early days of wearables but we’re not in the early days of voice technology and the latter just needs to get a lot better.
There are apps for the phone and aside from the magic 8 ball app I did not find much to be interested in. The fitness app trend seems to have peaked but it may be that the first generation of these apps has peaked an we’ll have a big leap forward in the next iteration. Sending SMS is cool but you have to double check the voice-to-text so it’s not a convenience… same with email. Timers and other watch functions, as you might expect, are useful but not enough to compel anyone because that’s a basic watch function and in some respects my smartphone is just better at this.
After using the watch for more than a month I lost interest in it and put it on the shelf. The primary reason for this is that I simply prefer the feel of a mechanical watch and I’m of the generation that has more invested in the tradition of timepieces. However, another big reason is that the smartphone just got annoying… I felt spammed with notifications when I just wanted to see what time it was.
We really need to develop a better solution for notifications and I’m not alone in voicing this frustration. If wearables and IoT means I’m going to get 10x the number of notifications that I already get on my phone, count me out.
Now on to the Apple watch, and in the spirit of self-deprecating full disclosure, I’m not your guy for apple predictions. I will say that the Apple watch looks pretty clunky but that in itself will become a compelling aspect of the design language… and if they sell watches as a precursor to selling iPhones they will still win.
I am pretty interested to see how other devices interact with smartwatches for authentication and user engagement. Given enough development of the platform and supporting apps, smartwatches could end up unlocking an entire new wave of device proliferation and things like in-vehicle services. With a “guest mode” capability smartwatches could also serve as a really compelling interface to public services and facilities.
UPDATE: I neglected to highlight one really annoying aspect of the Moto360, which is that it only charges via NFC. It has a very stylish dock that the watch “sleeps” in to recharge but what are you supposed to do when you travel. I try to minimize the crap I have to carry with me so when I saw that I could only take it with me if I hauled the special charger around (because who carries an NFC base station with them?) I ended up leaving it at home every time I traveled.