What you need to know about smartwatches but were too afraid to ask

One of the biggest revolutions recently in the tech-world is the smartwatch. Even though they have become increasingly popular among the general public, that was not the case initially when the first smartwatches arrived in the market. Furthermore, many users and observers are still scratching their heads regarding the usability of smartwatches in day to day use and what purpose they will serve in the future.

When trying to figure out these questions and predict how the smartwatches will trend in the future, it is sometimes helpful to look back and see what laid the foundation of the smartwatch.

Believe it or not, wristwatches have been in use since the late 15th century. During that period, it was customary for men to use pocket watches while only women were seen using a wristwatch. This watch gender differentiation was all but gone at the beginning of the 18th century and soon afterwards the common use of a wristwatch became ever more popular while the good old pocketwatch was left in the pocket.

Who doesn’t remember Dick Tracy, the comic book police detective? He was able to stay in touch with his colleagues on the police force by utilizing a wristwatch with a built-in radio. Perhaps this was the first public representation of using a wristwatch for something else than just to let you know what time it is. Then there is always 007, on her Majesty’s secret service, who has in the past been able to get out of many life-threatening situations by using whatever gadget-functionality was available on his wristwatch at that time. One can though surmise that these kind of functionalities would not help people in any day to day situations but you never know when you need to blow something up or have to use an industrial laser to penetrate through something.

Another twist took place in the seventies when renowned watchmaker Casio started a new line of digital wristwatches. For the first time consumers could now not only keep track of time but they could also do simple calculations thanks to the built-in calculator, use an alarm clock, use a stopwatch and so forth. This trend even went so far as to incorporate a TV remote control into one of their models.

It is apparent that the modern smartwatch has little or no affiliation with these past contraptions. By today’s standards, a smartwatch must be able to transmit the information it gathers wirelessly to another device for further processing. The first watch that was able to perform this action was the Timex Datalink in 1994. This watch could connect wirelessly to a standard PC-computer and synchronize calendar and contact information with a little known program at that time called Microsoft Schedule+, which was later rebranded and is now known today as Microsoft Outlook.

Following this mile marker in the history of smartwatches, a slow yet steady progress took place and reach another mile marker in 2012 when Pebble started a Kickstarter-funding for their smartwatch simply known as the Pebble. This smartwatch had built-in sensors that could keep track of your steps, other movement and transmit the information via Bluetooth to your smartphone.

The Pebble laid the foundation for how the modern smartwatch has evolved and soon followed many of the biggest hardware and software manufacturers with smartwatches of their own.

However, it was not entirely clear what kind of market need was being addressed with the manufacturing of the smartwatch. The first variations of these smartwatches often had limited battery life and therefore it was a bit of a trick to try to convince the modern user to swap out their standard wristwatch, which had a battery life measured in months or years, for a watch that certainly could provide useful information but did not deliver on the basic functions such as telling you the time without running out of battery.

There lies the core problem of the modern smartwatch. The smartwatch market is showing a similar trend as other similar smart device markets; each manufacturer is trying to bring into the market a better designed device at the expense of practicality and functionality.

Manufacturers have tried to add GPS-functionality, pulse tracking, step counter, barometric measurements and other functions into their smartwatches. Some manufacturers have even tried to export every functionality of the smartphone into the smartwatch.

The problem with this trend is that by adding too much functions into a small device that is literally utilizing battery technology that hasn’t improved much in the last two decades.

Therefore, many manufacturers have been struggling in this market but with most trends in the smart device market, things did not pick up until in the year 2014 when Apple entered the market and introduced their smartwatch; Apple Watch. The Apple smartwatch went into sale in the spring of 2015 but it was not left without criticism and many users complained about poor battery life and some experienced hardware problems.

But with many of the devices that Apple designs and offers, the Apple Watch was praised for its design and look. Many experts believe that this design was the key factor for the Apple Watch to survive during its initial phase while Apple did their best to improve battery life and other issues.

Another mile marker was reached in 2014 when Google introduced Android Wear, a special version of their Android operating system, specifically designed for smaller devices. This opened a new market for many hardware manufacturers and solidified Android’s position as the biggest smartdevice operating system.

However, being successful in this market is not a guarantee that you will endure in this market.

Microsoft surprised everyone when they entered this market in the fall of 2014 when the Microsoft Band was made public. The design of Microsoft Band was similar to what was trending in the market at that time but Microsoft tried to make the Band as independent from the smartphone as possible. Many of the configurations on the Band could be done without any input from the smartphone. The Band had a built-in GPS-receiver and the second version of the Band had a built UV-sensor to warn the user if he was exposed for too long in the sun. The Microsoft Band was priced considerably lower than other similar smartwatches and that caused huge customer attraction. The Band also was able to receive every single notification from the smartphone and many users saw this as a revolution in how they interacted with their smart device.

The Microsoft Band was a huge success and first orders sold out the same day that the Band was made available. Despite its’ success, users were experiencing poor quality in the wristband, which had the battery built-in. Despite ensuring users that things would be better in forthcoming models, the Microsoft Band 2 experienced the same problems and many users complained, as always, about poor battery life.

Two years later, Microsoft made the dramatic decision to pull out of the smartwatch market and discontinue any further sales of the Band and Band 2. During this time, many manufactures had emerged from Asia, providing cheap health bands and smartwatches. Without doubt this influenced Microsoft in their decision.

For the past few years the trend in the smartwatch market has evolved around what type of information is being collected by the watch and sent to the user. The traditional smartwatch collects data on how many steps you have taken, monitors the heart rate, any type of exercise and sleep cycle. Each day, enormous amounts of data is being collected for each user, either for the user to monitor his excise regime or to identify sleep problems etc.

If we analyze and focus on these fundamental functions of the modern smartwatch then it becomes easier to select the right watch.

Roughly, smartwatches can be divided into two categories. Firstly, smartwatches that try to gather as much information as possible. These are smartwatches that can operate independently in any normal circumstances without any assistance from a smarth phone. These are smartwatches that are collecting information from the user such as GPS-coordinates, altimeter information, heartrate, steps, exercise while inside a gym or outside and etc. Smartwatches that fall within this category usually last only several days before they need to be recharged. Users who prefer these types of smartwatches thus have to be prepared to charge them more regularly than a basic smartwatch, not to mention a regular wristwatch. Secondly, we have smartwatches that only collect data information from the end user such as steps, sleep cycle and nothing more. These types of smartwatches have more in common with traditional fitness bands that collect basic information from the user while he is exercising. The battery life of these smartwatches is often measured in weeks rather than days.

If we take a use case from real life, we can take a closer look at Withings. This French health and lifestyle product manufacturer, which was recently acquired by Nokia, designed a simple smartwatch that collects step counts and monitors the sleep cycle of the user. But because Withings decided to design the smartwatch with heavy focus on battery life, they designed the watch so it can outperform other similar devices in the market. The Withings Go, now named Nokia Go, utilizes an E-Ink screen, similar to the ones used on E-Book devices. Just by doing this, each Nokia Go can now last up to 8 months on a single CR1232-battery cell, commonly used in small electronci devices such electronic candles, weather station and etc. All the functions of the Nokia Go are configured through an app on a smartphone. This methodology has then been used in the design of the Nokia Steel Hr; a traditional wristwatch, which has smartwatch functionality. The Nokia Steel HR can monitor your heartrate and measures how far you have traveled each day, along with counting your steps and monitoring your sleep cycle along with other exercises. The battery life of the Nokia Steel HR is around 3-4 weeks and it has a rechargeable lithium battery.

It is easy for those who are not fully aware of the capabilities of the various smartwatches in the market to criticize them for the fact that they need to be recharged on a regular basis. Also, some have gone to lengths to criticize the smartwatch for destroying the simple wristwatch by adding unnecessary functionality into them. However, the vast majority of smartwatch users, present company included, can testify on the great benefits they offer. As soon as you start using a smartwatch, you are more aware of your activity and you stand up and walk more frequently over the day, breaking the cycle of immobility that is becoming a big health concern. Who doesn’t recognize the joy of victory when you beat the step goal of the day and automatically you try to do better the next day.

Perhaps this is the fundamental core issue of the smartwatch market. Manufacturers might be inclined to focus more on simpler versions of smartwatch while the battery technology powering the watches isn’t progressing at the same rate as other part of the smart device market. But it should not be a problem for users to utilize more complex smartwatches for their everyday life since the technology is already there and should be used. They just need to realize that they might need to keep their battery charger close by in everyday life.

Source 1: Wikipedia – Wristwatches
Source 2: Wikipedia – Smartwatches