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The Smart Watch Needs to Matter


On Monday the New York Times reported Samsung’s plans to unveil a smart watch next month:

Samsung Electronics plans to introduce a wristwatch in September that can make phone calls, play video games and send e-mails, potentially beating Apple to market with a piece of technology that moves mobile communications beyond the smartphone.

At the same time, speculation has reached an all-time high for a Fall release of Apple’s rumored iWatch.

Assuming these both are true, it’s clear that we’re on the cusp of not only a new product category, but an entirely new market in the consumer technology space. Unlike Apple’s past two major releases in the iPhone and iPad, the company will have to address competition with the iWatch right out of the gate. And one can only assume companies like Sony won’t be far behind them.

But thinking back to the iPhone and iPad, those markets – now fully mature and saturated with competition – required a reason for them to exist. Before the iPhone, smartphones were around; they just didn’t make sense. Before the iPad, tablet computing was a thing; but it didn’t make sense either. Both i-devices were the products that took a lifeless technology and turned it into a device to better our lives. And to give something competitors to chase after.

It’s one thing to make a new technology for the sake of its existence – “because we can.” But it’s another thing altogether to introduce a product that gives context as to why a consumer should want it.

Wearable computing is the next product category to go on that list. The technology is around today: Fitbit, Google Glass, etc. It’s a thing that exists, but what is the justification for this type of product as opposed to what we already have?

It can’t be a screen that moves the basic functions of a phone to your wrist. Anyone who’s doing just that is missing the point. Because convincing billions of average smartphone users to drop their current device and start talking to their wrist is a fantasy. It’s a case of something being made “because we can.” The winning device of this upcoming market will show us something we can’t do on our phones.

Perhaps a valid context for wearable computing lies in an extension of the smartphone: post-mobile computing, we’ll call it. Actually, let’s coin that term now. Maybe it’ll be useful down the road. Post-Mobile Computing, oooh.

Have you ever seen those silly HTC charms that light up for a notification? Probably not because no one uses them. But I think they’re on to the spirit of post-mobile computing. Simplifying the notification, perfecting the quick reference; anything that reduces our interaction with our phone could be the answer.

Another justification could lie in sensors and data collection. These are things a smartphone can sort of do; but oftentimes need third-party help to make it work. Again, Fitbit. But also a product like the Lapka; which collects data externally and uses the phone to process it into something useful. That sci-fi dream of a personal health monitor – the IRL Heads Up Display – might find its first baby steps in this smart watch market.

All these things are possibilities for the valid use of a smart watch. But it may even be something we haven’t thought of yet. In fact, this is the most likely option for what to expect: the unexpected. Imagine trying to predict the GUI for the personal computer when all you knew at the time was a command line. That re-contextualizing of the PC is what set it off as a viable market – and it took only a few engineers, designers, and maybe a couple once-in-a-lifetime visionaries to show it to us. Not the entire computer community hypothesizing what they could do next.

Apple, Samsung, Sony; the GUI of the smart watch era could come from any one of these companies. Or it could come from an unknown company. What better opportunity for an underdog of no previous history to swoop in, show us something these companies couldn’t, and lead us forth into the modern age of wearable computing.

But I’m telling you, whether you buy my “post-mobile computing” mumbo-jumbo or not, that just a screen for your wrist is not the product that will get us there.


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