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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There’s Something About Smartwatches

Rumor has it that Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft are all working on some sort of thingamajig that is worn around the wrist, which people are calling a smartwatch. None have arrived on the market yet, but they have everyone wondering whether or not this will be the biggest mobile device since the smartphone.

But will people really want to own and wear one?

Some people, of course, can’t wait. New gadgets can still titillate and excite even the most jaded consumer. But will it become a multibillion dollar market, as major hardware makers and software developers alike hope? That has yet to be seen.

Technology reporters Jenna Wortham and Brian X. Chen weigh in on three questions about the latest phenomenon in hardware.

What Will They Look Like?

Jenna: There’s no doubt that mass-market wearables are the next big thing in computing. They haven’t always had to look cool to catch on â€" take the pager and the Bluetooth headset as examples. So it is less a question of form and more a question of function. What will these things be able to that our other body machinery, including phones, fitness devices and tablets, don’t already do?

Brian: As a successor to the smartphone, a smartwatch will probably be a touchscreen that is worn around the wrist, capable of running apps. It will no doubt look like something that Tony Stark (or Elon Musk) would want to wear: futuristic, minimalist, slick. I’d imagine that it will come in a variety of colors, and people will be able to choose between different-style digital watch faces to display the time.

How Will They Be Used?

Brian: I would think that a smartwatch will barely even be noticeable unless you were actively looking for it on someone’s wrist, similar to the subtlety of the Nike FuelBand or Jawbone Up, which are just solid-color bracelets.

But the thing I think people may find jarring about smartwatches is how users will interact with them. Take the Pebble, for instance: When a text message is received, it shows up on the watch screen. When I was with a colleague who wore a Pebble, he would stare at the watch every few minutes whenever he received a message from his girlfriend. People usually interpret this body language to mean someone is short on time and needs to be somewhere else, which could raise some tension. I think it will be key for companies to figure out how to make a smartwatch that doesn’t create awkward social situations.

Jenna: In my trial run of the Pebble smartwatch, I was impressed by how cool it felt to wear it, but disappointed that it didn’t streamline my life more. Then there are etiquette issues. Glancing at your wrist constantly, trying to decipher what’s happening on that minuscule screen, is distracting and rude. But maybe that’s only temporary until we all have them. Only time will tell.

With all new technologies, there’s always an adjustment period where we figure out what role a new social service or piece of hardware plays in our lives, from autocorrect to Siri to GPS. It’s always a little bit bumpy and prone to awkward moments or comical glitches, and smartwatches will be no different. I think it’ll be telling to see who the initial market will be â€" likely early adopters, runners, business professionals, kids. Will it expand beyond that, or will smartwatches just end up being another piece of smart-garbage collecting dust on our closet floor, alongside our old discarded Razrs, Nintendos and GPS units?

Will They Succeed?

Jenna: Cost will be a factor, as will interoperability. Will Samsung’s smartwatch only work with its Galaxy line of phones? And Google’s, Androids? If the walling off of gardens continues to happen as we’ve seen it in the past, the future looks bleak for the broader success of any of these devices, except maybe Apple’s. Limiting the reach of any new, experimental piece of hardware had a significant impact on the success of the Nexus Q, Google’s music hardware, and others. Then again, each maker has the chance to really rethink how their device interacts with their suite of other products. If Microsoft’s watch had a singular and cool tie-in to the Kinect, for example, that could dazzle consumers and move the category forward.

Brian: As was the case with smartphones, apps will define the value of a smartwatch. One can only imagine the potential for software when it is connected to the body. For example, perhaps a smartwatch could contain a heart rate monitor, which would enable software for tracking your workout, or monitoring your health very closely. Or imagine if the smartwatch’s music player automatically picked songs with a BPM that matched your heart rate. There are plenty of interesting possibilities.

But I think the biggest question is how much these are going to cost. It seems inevitable that a smartwatch will be complementary to a smartphone, so I can’t imagine people wanting to pay much more than $150 for such a device.

Readers, share your thoughts on smartwatches in the comment section below. Are you interested in buying on? Why or why not?