TIME Big Picture

The Challenges of a Dick Tracy-like Watch-Phone

Samsung Gear 2
A Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch sits on display at the Samsung Electronics Co. pavilion on day two of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Simon Dawson--Bloomberg / Getty Images

I have been testing the Samsung Gear smartwatch for some time now and have actually become a fan of these types of watches. My first smartwatch was the Pebble, but its limited functionality drove me to try out the Samsung Gear since it gives me something that I really wanted in a smartwatch: email alerts and the ability to read my email on the smartwatch itself.

Like many people in the workplace I get hundreds of emails a day, although very few demand immediate action. But given my type of business, if a client emails me, I like to respond to them as fast as possible. So these smartwatch alerts allow me to be highly responsive to client requests. Yes, sometimes they come during a meeting or while I am doing something where I can’t respond to messages immediately, but being aware of these requests as they come in is important to me and plays heavily into how I manage my workday.

Recently, word leaked that Samsung was working on adding a phone feature to a smartwatch, and it got me wondering whether this is a good idea or not. I grew up in the era of Dick Tracy and I have to admit that I thought his watch-phone was really cool — as a kid, I really wanted one. But as I look at this idea now, I really wonder if a watch-phone would work for me in the real world. More importantly, would consumers even want it? The idea of always lifting up my arm to speak into a watch and having everyone around me being able to hear what’s being said to me is just not appealing, even if it seems cool.

Most likely, such a smartwatch could be tied to a Bluetooth headset so a person could handle voice calls more discreetly, but a lot of people are uncomfortable having a headset in their ear all of the time and for many, it makes them look too much like a geek. I also suspect the user interface would be pretty clumsy, even if it was voice controlled.

The idea of adding a phone feature to a smartwatch comes under the heading that many in the industry call feature-creep. Simply put, engineers keep trying to add a bunch of features into small packages, and while sometimes it works, most of the time it does not. One good example is some of the features Samsung threw into its Galaxy S4 smartphone, especially the hover feature that the majority of people never used. Thankfully, the company took that out in the Galaxy S5 and seemed to learn the lesson that in some devices, less is more.

I have now used about seven smartwatches and each one I have used has tried to cram a lot into a very small package. These watch screens are 1.5” in most cases, and while the screens are sharp and easy to read, putting more features and more text into this small space most often does not work well at all. The good news is that with the Pebble watch, the Samsung Gear watch and others, most developers are creating simple apps that can work on a small screen and deliver what we call “snacking data” such as news alerts, message alerts and, in some cases, email headlines. Also, most of these watches so far are tied to smartphones, serving as extensions of the smartphones themselves.

However, I am starting to see a lot of work being done behind the scenes where some companies are trying to make the smartwatch a standalone device. Not being connected to a smartphone would essentially make it a PDA of sorts in its own right, with all of the data and info and apps delivered to the watch. These watches wouldn’t be extensions of smartphones as they are today.

Although Samsung has not actually shared any details about its supposed smartwatch-phone, it would not surprise me if that’s the direction the company might take with this device. While Samsung would still want to sell a lot of standalone smartphones — and a smartwatch-phone would never supplant these — from an engineering standpoint, Samsung and others may want to give consumers the option of having their smartphones on their wrists instead of in their pockets.

But would Samsung and others be doing this simply because they can? Or because consumers really want it? Think of the role your smartphone plays in your life today. Could you dump a great 4” or 5” screen that delivers tons of apps and services and instead use only a smartwatch-phone? I know I could not. That’s why I’m quite happy with my smartwatches being extensions of my smartphones, working together harmoniously.

Sure, there will be some early adopters who take the plunge should a smartphone-watch hit the market. But I am very doubtful that these would ever catch on and be a hit with consumers. Rather, they would likely end up being just an engineering showcase for the companies who make them and, at least in my opinion, will never catch on with the broad consumer market.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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