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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Wristwatch May Be Making a Comeback, But With Some Smarts

Want to try a little experiment? Walk up to someone under the age of 25, don’t say a word, but instead point to your wrist. They will likely walk away, very quickly.

As I noted in an article in 2010, when incoming freshmen first arrived at college that year, wristwatches weren’t just a thing of the past, few students even understood that people could ask for the time silently.

“They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day,” wrote the administrators of Wisconsin’s Beloit College who put together a yearly list for the school’s professors to explain the cultural “norms” of incoming freshmen. “They don’t own watches and instead use their cellphones to tell the time.”

But the wristwatch or the wrist computer or the smartwatch or whatever you may want to call it may be making a comeback.

On Wednesday, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Gear, a smartwatch with a 1.63-inch touchscreen, a 320 x 320 resolution display, a built-in camera and a speaker. The watch can run over 70 applications, including RunKeeper, to track your running, Pocket, to read articles saved from the Web, and Evernote to keep and view notes.

While there is a lot of excitement around the Samsung watch, it is not the first of its kind.

Sony announced the SmartWatch 2 in June that went on sale on Wednesday. The device has a two-square-inch screen that can display e-mails, Twitter posts and other pieces of text, all pulled from an Android smartphone to which the watch is connected.

This year, Stephen Sneeden, Sony’s product marketing manager who worked on the company’s wristwatch, told me that Sony saw a large market in smartwatches. “The wrist becomes a remote screen where you now have the ability to control your phone with a number of different applications,” he said.

Other device makers are also coming to this realization.

Qualcomm this week also announced the Toq Smart Watch, a limited-edition touchscreen device that it said would allow it to experiment in the growing genre of wearable computers.

There are other types of watchlike devices available to customers. The Nike FuelBand, a black band with an array of colored lights, measures the energy you exert on a daily basis and sends it to a smartphone. Jawbone sells the Up, a unisex bracelet that tracks a user’s daily activity and sends the information to an iPhone application. And there’s the Pebble, a black -and-white watch that can play music and display text messages and connect to iOS and Android smartphones.

While the technology blog The Verge seemed excited by the Samsung Galaxy Gear, it also noted, realistically: ”One thing the Gear has in common with other smartwatches; it’s not terribly smart.”

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker also shared that sentiment. He questioned whether the lack of an invention for watches over the 500 years “is the result of a failure of imagination or simply a fact of nature â€" that a watch will always just be a watch, no matter how smart it might think it is.”

That said, all these gadgets could prove to be the equivalent of the first generation Kindle, which was slow, clunky and not very easy on the eyes, compared with the first Apple iPad.

As I reported this year, Apple has been busy working on an iWatch and hopes to announce the device sometime next year. The Apple iWatch will run a variation of iOS, the company’s mobile operating system, and will connect to an Apple iPhone.

Will all this be enough to persuade college graduates who have never owned a watch and have no desire to ever purchase one to buy an additional device that tells the time?

Not everyone seems convinced that these smartwatches are going to be a big hit.

“No one needs a low-resolution camera on a watch,” Kevin Rose, a partner at Google Ventures, wrote on Twitter. “Or a watch for that matter.”