Saturday, 7 March 2015

The quantified self & smart watches

There's a lot of chatter in Tech Land about smart watches, mostly fuelled by the impending launch of the Apple Watch. It will either be another iPhone, disrupting multiple industries at once (for the iPhone it was mobile phones, music players, cameras and palm PCs), or it will join the increasing array of 'smart' watches that adorn geeky and/or healthy wrists only. In an age when hardly anyone under 30 bothers to wear a watch, except as a fashion item, this is quite audacious. They have to justify a watch's existence as a supplement to a more powerful device: your phone. From a brand built on making our tech lives simpler, this teeters dangerously on the brink of "just because it's trendy and we want you to buy more of our stuff".

To get it right they need to offer
a) features that my phone and a simple watch cannot offer, like subtle notifications (tap on the wrist), glance-able info and extra sensors.
b) a battery life that is convenient to regular use. If I have to plug it in every single night, it had better be worth wearing every single day.

From what I've seen so far, I think they're focusing too much on the former and not enough on the latter. They are probably hoping that the former will overwhelm the latter: that the watch and its developer ecosystem will offer such a plethora of features that users won't care about having to plug their watch in every night.

The current smart watch market is
a) people with some interest in 'the quantified self': keeping stats about how many steps they walk, their heart rate, how long they sleep, meals they eat etc.;
b) info-addicts who need to be notified about the slightest twitch in their infosphere, be it a facebook 'like', a google '+1', a retweet or an incoming email.

The trouble is that these are extreme users. Most of us can't be bothered, and therefore won't bother to purchase or at least recharge, if we purchase or are gifted one. Most of us find our phones and tablets to be distracting enough - our little hard-to-control habit that may or may not be good for us. Will Apple try to convince the rest of us that we want yet another gadget to make our lives simpler? Or are they simply following the other gadget heavyweights to plug that gap in their ecosystem?

There are many players in this space, mostly from the 'quantified self' angle. Fitness trackers abound, I guess because if you make a habit of running/gyming every other day then you don't mind the extra habit of recharging your tracker. Some of these use your phone's sensors, in tandem with their own, to provide glance-able stats to your wrist; some are standalone. The former have battery lives of months, whereas the latter last hours. They are all specialist, though: you wouldn't wear them unless you were doing fitness stuff.

The one to watch, for my money, is Pebble. Their watches last at least a week (screen based on e-ink, same as a basic Kindle), and they work equally well with iOS and Android. They are currently Kickstarter-backed, but I bet the likes of Citizen and Casio are watching them closely. A solar-powered Pebble is my current speculative ideal.

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