The iWatch Cometh…

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The most highly anticipated Apple launch event since the arrival of the iPad in 2010 is rumoured to see the long-awaited unveiling of the iWatch – Apple’s bid to truly launch the era of wearable computing. I’m fortunate enough to be attending the event and will post thoughts on what is unveiled, but in the meantime, here is a column I wrote on smartwatches early last year. It will be interesting to see how prescient, or otherwise, I was.

iWatch this space: will Apple reinvent the timepiece?

From The Irish Times, March 25th, 2013

Last week I was travelling in a different time zone, so to keep my bearings I tried to reset the time on my prized but cheap Casio watch – this should not prove an onerous task, I thought. Wrong. I was quickly plunged into an excruciating rigmarole of continuous button pressing and mode changing and inadvertent mistake-making. This should be a lot easier, I thought to myself as I wasted yet more time in search of the right time. And judging from recent rumblings in the technology world, I’m not the only person thinking that.

If the rumour mill is to be believed, the humble wristwatch is next in line for some Apple-flavoured disruption. Recent stories in the mainstream US press, presumed to be strategic leaks out of Cupertino, suggest that Apple has a team of 100 engineers working on the inevitably nicknamed iWatch. The gadget sites are in overdrive, already predicting ways in which Apple can bring that trademark design flair to our lower arms. Analysts are all over the business networks, spouting extraordinary numbers suggesting that Apple could add another $6 billion business to their iPhone, iPad and Mac lines with the introduction of an iWatch. Not to be outdone, Samsung has already announced it has its own smartwatch in the works.

You don’t even need to mention Google Glass to realise the era of wearable computing is imminent, and the wrist is going to be prime real estate. Or rather, wearable computing is imminent once again, because experiments in feature-addled watches have been going on for longer than Dick Tracey has been busting criminals with the aid of a wrist-borne radio.

The efforts to add computing utility to our wristwatches is a more recent trend, but the results have tended to be inglorious failures – think of those ickle Casio calculators, or the ones with in-built IR remote controls.

Indeed, Samsung has long been one of the pioneers of the smartwatch space – they were the first company to ship a watchphone back in 1999, the SPH-WP10, a rather ill-conceived and bulky piece of kit that unsurprisingly failed to become a fashion statement or replace the Nokia handsets everyone was using back then.

More recently, in 2009, Samsung announced the considerably better-looking S9110, a touchscreen watchphone that was hobbled by mediocre specs and poor software. Around the same time, LG announced the GD910 watchphone, which went on sale in the summer of 2009 for an eye-watering sticker price of about €1,000, while Hyundai also introduced a watch phone that year. None took off, unsurprisingly.

And while we’re recalling dimly remembered wrist gadgets, it’s worth pointing out that Bill Gates unveiled a networked Microsoft smartwatch in 2002 – the Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) watch was a sales disaster that almost immediately went into the ledger as one of those foolish Redmond endeavours alongside their early tablets and Windows Vista.

More recent efforts, such as the crowdfunded Pebble watch or the Nike Fuelband, have scaled back their ambitions to act primarily as intelligent accessories for our smartphones, offering notifications of incoming messages or monitoring our exercise levels.

Given this long history of products in the smartwatch space, it’s worth asking why everybody is waiting for Apple to effectively “invent” the smartwatch all over again? Is it yet more evidence that the technology industry is overly dependent on Apple to define and crystallise the design of gadgets, and our relationship with them? And above all, can any such device prove to be as revolutionary as the iPhone and iPad?

I suspect not – I’m of the school that thinks any iWatch will not be much more than a new, diminutive iPod model with a range of sensors, Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with your iPhone and the possibility for third-party developers to create apps to take advantage of the form factor. That could be cool, certainly, but not groundbreaking.

The hype, I reckon, is fuelled by the excitement surrounding wearable computing and, to a lesser degree, the quantified self, our lives recorded and measured by an array of devices. Google Glass is the pre-eminent example, though I suspect also the most overblown.

But it seems obvious to me that we are already in that era, for all intents and purposes – in a practical sense, those smartphones in our pockets are being “worn” just as much as bracelets or badges or necklaces or glasses are worn. The coming array of smartwatches might add marginal convenience for users, but it will be a while before they can completely usurp the smartphone for a whole host of reasons.

Imagining how things might unfold, I’d wager that wearable computing will take the form of a constellation of devices, from sensor-filled watches to camera-equipped badges to, possibly, networked spectacles, that will all interoperate, communicating with one another over Bluetooth, sending data to the cloud, inspiring a host of innovative apps we can barely begin to imagine.

It will be cool, ultimately it will probably be revolutionary, but let’s not ignore the obvious perils of such complexity – there’s no reason to think these devices will eradicate the frustrations I experienced trying to change the time on my Casio.

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