Making Smartwatches As Popular As Smartphones

While the smartwatches in the market today are really nice and revolutionary, the sales of these watches are still slowly building up. It is expected that about 1.2 million smartwatches will ship this year, a paltry number compared to the estimated 1.5 billion smart phone users in the world. What could be the reason for this? It is likely that the current smartwatches do not have the critical components or features that will make them a runaway success.

Euromonitor's head of consumer electronics, Loo Wee Teck, commented current smartwatches are just not that great a customer proposition yet.

"Smartwatches try to replicate the smartphone experience on a minuscule wrist-sized screen, which translates to inferior usability or otherwise seeking to complement and extend the functionality of smartphone onto a smaller screen"

So what will make the perfect smartwatch?

I have condensed it down to five components that need to be addressed before we can see this class of wearable electronics take off. These five components are design, functionality and reliability, apps, power consumption and battery life and lastly, durability. Why do I think that these are important? Well let's look at them one by one.

Design

The design of the smartwatch can be split into three separate parts, the watch body, the watch face and finally the wrist strap.

The first thing that people look at would likely be the watch body. Is it too bulky, does it look cool and fashionable? The ideal body should be suitable for both casual and formal wear. For example, the Pebble with its nice clean sporty look would blend well sports attire but might look a bit out of place when worn with a suit and tie. The newer contenders like the AGENT or Vachen however, could be worn with normal casual attire or formal wear.

The watch bodies should be at a reasonable size as well. The size of the dive computers made by Suunto are a pretty decent size without being unwieldy. They can be worn like a normal wrist watch and most divers do that.

Most guys do not mind larger watches but some ladies do. Should there be two watch sizes? Perhaps this would be a good solution, after all, we have had watch sizes for men and women all this while. However, add too much bulk to the watch and it becomes one chunky thing on the wrist that appeals to no one. The difference in watch size could mean that more goodies can be crammed into it. A larger batter would be the most welcomed and sometimes some sensors as well?

Of course the watch body should match the watch face it is displaying. The watch face, like the body, should be able to match different dressing needs as well. This is easier as the watch face can be changed with the press of a button. So this is something that the watch makers or third party developers will need to take note of. While the watch body can have a general design that fits most wearing needs, the watch face should match a particular theme. A formal classy watch face for more formal occasions to large sporty display for sporting needs, there should be enough watch faces to appeal to different users and their needs.

Pebble made this possible by releasing an SDK for third party developers to create their own watch faces. This has lead to a huge library of watch faces for the Pebble. Vachen took a different approach. They develop their own watch faces but promise over 100 watch faces available upon the launch of the Vachen watch.

Last but not least, the watch strap. Just like the two other parts mentioned, the watch strap should be fit fit most dressing situations and there are two possible ways to do this. The first way would be similar to the design fundamentals of the watch body such that the watch strap would look good if it is worn with casual or more formal wear. A good example of this design method would be the watch straps of the Agent watch. It features an accent-stitched watch strap that looks chic enough for normal wear but the stitching adds that extra bit of class that makes it blend with formal wear as well.

A second option would be for the strap to be easily replaceable. While the Pebble and Agent use standard 22mm watch straps that are easily changed with a small screw driver, this might still be a bit too troublesome for some, especially if you change straps often or are in a rush. The Sony SmartWatch and Motorola MotoActv offer an interesting alternative. The watch body contains a spring-loaded clip which is used to clip onto the watch strap, allowing for really quick changes. The only downside of this method is that the clip adds quite a bit of thickness to the body.

Which is a better method? Personally, I think a mix of both. The strap should be able to fit most situations but also allow users to change the straps as they like. Using 22mm straps is a good idea as they are ubiquitous and are available in many designs and materials.

Functionality and reliability

Other than just simply looking good, a successful smartwatch should be able to carry out its duties as a smartwatch as well.

Firstly, what should the screen be? A touchscreen, normal LCD or e-ink display? Each option has its own benefits and disadvantages and affects several key considerations of a smartwatch, like design, functionality and power consumption. For starters, does a touch screen make sense for a smartwatch? Would one be able to use the watch without being frustrated with jabbing at such a small screen? A small screen would also mean that you can not display a lot of information. Apple appeared to have tested this by releasing a touch-capable iPod nano, which many turned into a watch. But the iPod nano is still an iPod, can it do what we require of a smartwatch? Perhaps Apple has learned some interesting insights into wearable education with the iPod nano "experiment"?

Having said that, I think that a touchscreen would definitely add to the usability of the watch compared to pressing buttons to scroll and select (that's so 1990s right?). Beside, with touch screen smart phones being so ubiquitous now, this might be something that people expect. However, this increase in usability is balanced off by an increase in power consumption. While it is great to have touch functions, it would not be so great if your watch needs charging every couple of hours.

When designing a new gadget, it is always tempting to make it do more and more, adding function after function to it. But as Apple has shown, sometimes more can be less. Will adding a feature or function add to the value of the watch or take something away? For example, adding a microphone to your smartwatch to allow hands-free (well sort of) calling from your watch would mean that the watch would not be as waterproof as one without a mic. Similarly, adding the clip to the back of the watch allows convenience at the cost of adding thickness. Which is a better choice? There will always be compromises that need to be made and everything is a balancing act. Successful products will be able to pick the features that people want and take away those that only add fluff. If no one wants to talk through the watch, why add it in?

Notifications are a critical component of the smartwatch value proposition. For a start, they must be reliable and pushed to the user as required. If notifications are regularly missing, the user will not trust the watch and so that will be required to continue checking their phones, defeating the purpose of the watch. Moreover, notifications must be informative and accessible. Enough information must be available on the watch face without being too cluttered. One issue about the Pebble is that it only shows the latest notification, which reduces the usability of the device.

Lastly, reliability is another important piece of the puzzle. Given that smartwatches contain mini-computers running an operating system, they too can crash or freeze up in the same way our computers do. For smart phones like the iPhone, plugging the device into a computer and syncing with iTunes typically solves the problem. But since smartwatches are unable to do the same, ie sync directly with a computer through a hardware connection, it should have a way of self rebooting to restore functionality or, at the very least, get basic functions like the watch face and Bluetooth running. Imagine if you built your watch and can not get it to restart as

iLounge discovered when they assembled their Cookoo.

One thing I really like about the Agent is the use of redundancies to reduce the chances of breaking the watch. For a start, it uses two firmware memory banks to act as a failsafe and a secondary processor that is able to restart the watch into recovery mode. This gives you the peace of mind that all is not lost even if something goes wrong on your watch.

Apps

Many believe that without the Apple SDK and App store, the iPhone 3G and subsequent models would not have been as successful as they are today. Apps provided a means for third party developers to extend the functionality of the device.

In fact, with so many third part developers out there, apps and functionality can be added at a faster rate and even better than what the manufacturers themselves can do. But of course, watch manufacturers have to concentrate on the operating system core and hardware development as well, so the development of these apps should best be left to external developers.

Given the financial incentive (ie paid apps), we will be able to see a maturation of the app market, moving from just watch faces to apps that add on a whole new dimension of functionality and collaboration between the watch and the phone. While some might scoff at the idea of ​​having to pay for apps (we are all spoiled by the number of good free or freemium apps available), would not it be a good thing for everyone if really great apps were developed for the watches they use? If the app can help shave off a half hour or so off our schedule every day or give us a peace of mind when we need it, would not it be worth a few dollars? With a healthy app market, app developers will have the financial incentive to make better and better apps and that will only benefit the users in the long run.

When the Pebble's makers released their new two way SDK in mid May 2013, it allowed developers to create two way communications into their apps so that the watch can now "talk" to your phone and your phone can "talk" back. The first app to utilize this new functionality is the Pebble Ringer, which allows the user to change your iPhone's ringing mode. This allows you to switch your phone to silent when you are in a meeting, vibrate when you are at work and back to ring when you get home. It is not much now, but this simple app just barely scratches the surface of what two way communication can do. There might be a lot more that you can do to control your phone with just your watch. These are exciting times!

Power consumption and battery life

Smartwatches can only function as a smartwatch when it has power, so a long battery life is important. It will be useless if it can only be used for a day or less before you need charging. As with all gadgets with a computer processor, more powerful applications that require more calculations or more active sensors will use up battery faster than simpler apps. The tradeoff arises again, do you choose a watch that has a long battery life but very simple apps (like the Casio GB6900AA and Cookoo) or one that provides more advanced functions but last for a much shorter period of time (like the Sony SmartWatch or MotoActv)? Will consumers be satisfied with a watch that does not have true smart functions? For example, the Cookoo displays only a flashing icon to represent the type of incoming notification, which does not provide any additional information to me and I will still have to take my phone out. This defeats the purpose of having a smartwatch.

The Pebble managed to find some middle ground by using power saving features like its e-ink display to stretch the battery life to 5-7 days. Now, the Agent watch offers a similar battery life by using two processors to handle different functions on the watch. They have also included a precision power meter system that helps developers measure the exact power drain their apps are putting on the watch. This will allow them to fine tune their apps to become as battery-friendly as possible. Power management is not a simple process, developers will need to take note of not only the current power consumption rate but also the duration of the drain. An app running in the background for an extended period of time might consume more battery than one that has a high consumption rate but runs for a very short period of time or when needed. Apps must know when to shut off or sleep when needed. Those who are unable to do so and keep running in the background, will consume excess amounts of power and drain your watch faster than a leaking tap.

Now providing a tool is of course better than no tool at all, but will developers use this? I think that at the start, this might not be used as much or as stringently as the makers of the Agent would expect. The main focus of most developers will be to develop something that can be launched into the market. This might be the case for free apps as well (you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!). Of course, this will not last long. Developers will start focusing on fine-tuning their apps once most of the main functions are out and people start using power consumption as a differentiating factor. With social media and all the resources on the Internet now, it is easy for people to share their experiences with an app. If an app is known to be a battery black hole, it will be known and people will run to other competing apps. We will see a maturation of the apps, starting from simple apps that do few things, to more advanced battery-sucking apps and finally good quality paid apps that are optimized for your watch.

Watches – Casio GB6900AA and Cookoo

Battery life – Over a year

Battery conservation methods – Simple functionality

WatchPebble

Battery life – About a week

Battery conservation methods – E-Ink screen

Watches – Sony SmartWatch and Motorola MotoActv

Battery life – 3-5 days

Reasons for battery drain – Touchscreen

Watch – I'm Watch

Battery life – A day

Reasons for battery drain – Touchscreen and Bluetooth Internet tethering

Other than battery conservation, the battery used is another part of the watch that requires some scrutiny. Casio and Cookoo use a standard CR2032 battery in place of rechargeable batteries and they can go for a year or two before changing batteries. These batteries are easy to find and replace, but can they power a more complex smartwatch? Perhaps not.

So it would seem that rechargeable batteries might be needed to power smartwatches, least we would need to keep a drawer full of CR2032 batteries ready. So the method used to recharge the battery would be an important consideration because in a way, it also affects the design of the watch body.

Charging with a standard USB cable is more convenient compared to proprietary charging cables as these USB cables are commonly found anywhere. However, that exposed USB port would mean that the watch would not be water-resistant. So the convenience of charging will be balanced with the need for water-resistance. However, since water-resistance would be important for everyday use, it would seem that using the ubiquitous USB cables would have to go.

Other smartwatches chose the use of proprietary cables for their charging needs. They have allowed watch manufacturers to make their watches water-resistant and still easy to recharge. The only problem comes when you are away from your proprietary cable or lost it. Then you are stuck without a way to recharge your watch. This will become less of a problem when more people get the same watch as you or as third party cables become more available.

The interesting route that agent decided to go with is with wireless charging. They use the Qi wireless charging pad, which is an international standard for inductive power transfer created by the Wireless Power Consortium. While chargers using this standard is not that commonplace yet, with the backing of over 100 companies including big names like Sony, Nokia, Samsung HTC, Motorola and Huawei, it is highly likely that this standard will become more and more popular in the days to come. It is even expected that Qi hotspots will be available at public areas like airports and cafés, making it easy and painless to get a quick energy top-up. The makers of Agent might be on to something here (oh, and the watch is water-resistant since there are no open ports needed).

Lastly, a power-saving mode should be available to help stretch the usability of the smartwatch for as long as possible before a recharge can be done. When a smartwatch is running low on power, the least it should be able to do is still function as a watch, so sometimes when the watch drops below a certain threshold, it could automatically power down non-essential sensors, processors and apps to keep it running for as long as possible. Naturally, the user should be able to toggle this feature on and off and customize the threshold level as well.

Durability

As much as I like my iPhone, when I first got my iPhone (with its large glass screen), I was worried that I would drop or hit it against something. So, I am generally careful when using it. However, my wristwatch is a different matter. It feels like it is part of my arm and something, I forget it is there. Normally, that would be a good thing, as you would not want a watch that weighs heavily on your hand, but that means that sometimes, the watch is subjected to quite a few unintended knocks. As careful as we try to be, the watch will still be subjected to quite a bit of abuse as compared to a phone. So a smartwatch must be hardier than a smart phone.

The Casio smartwatch is built like a tank, as you would expect from any watch bearing the G-Shock moniker, but do we need such a tough watch all the time? If you do, then this watch or those like it would be a great fit for you. For the rest, that use it for more everyday use, would probably need something between fragile and the G-Shock.

We would thus expect the watch to be somewhat shock-proof, in the sense that dropping it would not mean the end of the watch. The body of the watch should be able to withstand a few hits easily and not have obvious impact or scratch marks on it. Anodized aluminum might make a good watch body as it is easy to color and is light weight, but it scratches more easily compared to stainless steel. However, metal does interfere with wireless signals, so a combination of stainless steel, reinforced glass and composite materials may be the answer to providing good Bluetooth connection while maintaining structural integrity and keeping the weight down.

Water-resistance is something else that must be looked at. We can try our best to keep our phones away from water, but we can not really do the same with our watches. It would be terrible if the simple act of washing of hands or getting used in the rain will render our smartwatches useless. A smartwatch is not some cheap electronic and it would be a huge heart ache if it could be wrecked with a bit of water.

But that is just the most basic of needs, one step above that, it would be really useful for us to be able to wear the watch for a swim or a trip to the beach. It will not only give us confidence in the watch (imagine if you were told that the watch is only "splash-proof", you will be worried every time you wash your hands!) But also be convenient (no need to change watches for a swim).

Perhaps a special hydrophobic (water-hating) coating like Liquipel would be able to help? This could allow watch-makers to include speakers and microphones without compromising the water-resistant capabilities of the watch.

Marketability

I know this is the 6th item on the list, but as I was writing this article, I felt that this "bonus" section is just as important as the rest. Why? Because marketing can make or break a product launch.

The product must seem cool, or at least accepted by the people. Buyers need to be convinced that this is something they want. It must shed its image of being just another early adopter's toys and become something mainstream, something everyone will want. A watch that has something to offer for everyone. Look at smart phones. They came at a time when no one thought that there was a need or want to be constantly connected. Blackberry users did, but most of them were businessmen that needed email access, a niche market. Then the iPhone came along and the smart phone market was created.

Will something like that happen for smartwatches? Is there a consumer need that it fills? A product will not survive if it does not fulfill a need or better yet, create a need. There are a lot of cool gadgets around that we can ooh and ahh at, but if they do not fulfill a more mainstream market, they will either remain as niche products or simply fade away.

Therefore, the watch-maker must which functions will help fulfill the needs of its target audience. Right now, it would seem that the needs of people are:

  1. Worried about missing important calls, emails or texts
  2. Worried over losing their phone
  3. Want to remain contactable (or some people just can not hear their phone ring)
  4. Want to be more connected to their electronic world
  5. Do not want to keep checking their smart phone screens
  6. Easy to use and can fit into their daily lives. Be there when required but disappear when not needed.

All these issues can be addressed by taking note of the 5 factors mentioned in this article. How will they be implemented would be exciting to see.

Final words

The perfect smartwatch might not exist. Different people have different requirements. Some prefer a smallish watch that is fashionable; some would rather have a large watch with a nice readable face. Of course, there are some factors like reliability, durability and water resistance that are non-negotiable to most. So, will there be a smartwatch that has mass market appeal or will there be many variants of a watch that will satisfy different segments of the market?

I think that anyone comes up with a smartwatch that hits the sweet spot, appealing to most people like what Apple did with the iPhone, will start with a tremendous advantage and gain quite a big market share. They will likely by the ones who will get the smartwatch market growing and become more appealing. However, with the large variety of individual preferences, there is room for other independent watch makers or other companies to create smartwatches that will appeal to everyone else.

Source by Eddie S


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