I Still Haven't Found The Wearable I'm Looking For

Sep 24, 2014

Weeks ago Apple unveiled (but did not yet release) their vision for a wearable computing device. Tim Cook described it as the most personal device they have ever designed, emphasizing the quantified self in the form of fitness and health tracking through an array of sensors, a mystifying and somewhat polarizing UI (complete with a “digital crown”), and an onslaught of apps and communication strategies. You can send animated drawings and heartbeats (and, for some reason, look at your photos).

While the engineering on display is definitely impressive, it’s not yet clear to me how the idea of a smart watch helps make modern life better, rather than introduce yet another screen where I have to clear notifications, hear beeps, and feel buzzes. Apple is up to something extensive but I’m not sure it’s compelling or coherent yet. Was Apple holding back on some additional secret sauce and just wanted to Osborne all the Android watches this holiday season before they tell us more?

Where was the dazzling display of the internet of things in a connected home? Where was the effortless two factor authentication into one’s digital life? Where are the killer apps and not just duplication of my iPhone’s features?

And why can’t we get to two day’s battery life, minimum?

Rewind to Google I/O

Earlier this year Google unveiled Android Wear with its vision of smart watches as primarily glance-able notifications combined with voice-driven commands and simple swiping of informative cards. It’s definitely easier to grok what they’re doing but it kind of feels like a faster horse version to the essential concept of the Pebble smart watch, unfortunately trading battery life for color touch screens. It does more than the Pebble (you can reply to messages, for example) but what we’ve seen is firmly in that paradigm. Is that all we want a watch to do? (Do we want a wrist device at all?)

While the software is a bit more cohesive than what we saw of the Apple Watch, it does not seem to be aiming very high. Sensible and practical, but not a paradigm shift or a vision of the future. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s exactly what we need.

But it seems like there’s got to be more.

I can be patient, but show me the future

It’s too easy to forget that the original iPhone had serious shortcomings (no 3G, terrible camera, no App Store, no copy and paste). But it did do a few things so damn well that it clearly spoke to what we think of as the modern smartphone. Namely, it showed us a pocket computer instead of a smarter cellphone.

But it’s too easy to forget how long it took to get to the iPhone. How many devices and technologies, taken alone, did not seem important or compelling. Resistive touch screens giving way to capacitive, battery advances, wireless infrastructure, and the ongoing miniaturization of processors and memory. The iPhone pulled all this together into a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts package that ignited the category and accelerated it. It made everyone get better or perish. But before the iPhone was the Newton, and before the iPad were Microsoft’s ill-fated tablet PCs.

What I’m wondering is if these first smart watches are more like the Newton or the “tablets” Microsoft made in the early 2000s than the iPhone? Misguided shots at what some other company would eventually figure out? Isolated stabs at what someone will later integrate and execute on?

Who else has a chance?

Even if another company figures it out, who has the ecosystem, production sophistication, and the wherewithal to compete against Google and Apple? None of the Android OEMs have any chance outside of Google’s platform (sorry Samsung). Microsoft is gasping for relevance in the mobile world. Don’t even mention Blackberry.

Amazon has a vast and thriving content ecosystem but not the design chops (and no one is going to read books or watch movies on their wrist, are they?). Kindle Fires are reasonably popular and affordable and decent but no one thinks they’re category defining tablets.

It may just be that the usefulness of wearables, to a far greater extent than even our smartphones, depends on truly smart technology. Technology that knows where you are on a micro scale, knows your context in relation to the world and the objects in it. Can make intelligent guesses and choices to interface you with everything else.

That kind of technology has to grow alongside an entire network of things and can’t be simply birthed out of a void.

That’s exactly the part of the future most prone to hyperbole and cheesy pie in the sky concept videos. But could we finally have enough of the pieces to start putting it all together?

And if so, what for?