Big Picture

3 Things Smartwatches Need to Be Ready for Prime Time

Inside The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show
Paul Jacobs, chairman and chief executive officer of Qualcomm Inc., wears a Toq smartwatch while speaking during a Bloomberg Television interview. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomber/Getty Images

The smartwatch has become a valuable tool that meets some key needs during my busy day. However, we are years away from smartwatches becoming items that a broad audience will accept.

I have become very interested in smartwatches. Over the past six months or so, I have intermittently been using the Pebble watch, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm’s TOQ, and I have come to the conclusion that smartwatches really are important tools that could enhance one’s digital lifestyle.

The first thing I realized when I unboxed the first generation of Pebble’s smartwatch was that it was geeky looking. It’s not very fashionable. For male geeks this might be OK, but for the masses, I saw it as a real problem. I also quickly discovered that its functionality was very limited. I knew this at a high level, but once I started wearing it, I really saw its shortcomings — especially its weak app ecosystem and the difficulty of getting apps onto the Pebble itself.

On the other hand, since this first version sent alerts of my messages and was tied to the walking app on my iPhone, I came to quickly appreciate how it impacted my interaction with my smartphone. The good news for potential Pebble buyers is that the Pebble is getting smarter every month and the company’s new app store is quite nice, although it’s still very limited as to what’s available. Despite a style upgrade earlier this year, Pebble watches are still for male geeks and will not attract many women in their current forms. But over time, I’m sure Pebble will try and make its products more stylish in order to attract more people — men and women, alike — to the platform.

Late last year, I got a chance to test Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch. This watch has been deemed a failure by the tenchnorati since its design is even geekier than the Pebble, and the early version was only tied to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smartphone. Since its release, the Gear now supports a few other Samsung smartphones such as the popular Galaxy S4. Also, the software was very unstable at first, and since this was what early testers were using to write reviews, they basically buried it before it had a chance to get better. I have actually become fond of its functionality, although it still needs much improvement.

I also have been testing Qualcomm’s TOQ smartwatch. This watch is a work in progress and has some good features, but it lacks in some areas, too.

At CES in early January, a bunch of new smartwatches were introduced, and it’s inevitable that many more smartwatches will come out this year to try to tap into a potential market for these wearable devices. I feel that unless they nail both form and function, most smartwatches will still be for geeks and never get a following with a broad audience. Many hope that Apple applies its design genius to a smartwatch; I, too, hope that’s in the cards. But after using three smartwatches for an extended period of time, I have come to believe that for them to be relevant to more than a geek audience, they have to address three major usability and design issues.

Design

The first is design itself. Most women would not be caught dead wearing the current crop of smartwatches. Actually, most men wouldn’t wear the current crop of smartwatches, either. While people buy watches to tell time (and in most cases, that’s a watch’s only function), the number one criteria in choosing a watch for most people is how it will look. It’s a fashion statement, not a technology one. That is why there are thousands of watch designs available, and almost all are based on how the watch looks on the wrist. Many people have more than one watch to match certain occasions. Unfortunately when tech companies create smartwatches, their design goals center on the electronics. Design is secondary, at best. If smartwatches are to ever reach broad market potential, design and function must be equally important.

Apps

The second thing that’s important: killer apps. While there may be plenty of apps, the killer app for me is the ability for a smartwatch to alert me to incoming messages and emails. Like most people, I live a very busy life. Especially during the day, I am in and out of meetings, driving to meetings, working at my desk or talking to people, and taking my phone out of my pocket to check messages and email is often difficult. This is especially true when driving or in a meeting. The smartwatch is just a wrist screen that is tied to my smartphone’s screen, serving as a sort of wrist voyeur for what is in my pocket. For me, that’s worth the price of these smartwatches, since it delivers exactly what I want in all types of business, social and even entertainment environments. I also like the fact that the three smartwatches mentioned above have a watch face that includes outside temperatures. We call this “at-a-glance” computing: a simple glance gives me key bits of information that are important to me throughout my day. Of course, I could just pull out my smartphone and get the same info, but that’s not always appropriate. In fact, it’s illegal when driving and it’s rude when in meetings.

Ecosystem

The third important thing: an ecosystem to support these apps. Apps need to be extremely simple to find, buy and load onto a smartwatch. Samsung has done a relatively good job with this in the Gear store, and getting apps onto the Gear is painless since it is done wirelessly and automatically. However, for smartwatches to truly become utilitarian, they eventually need to be standalone devices that can be connected to Wi-Fi or through cellular networks to gain access to a cloud-based way to download apps — not forced to connect through a smartphone. If I forget my smartphone for some reason, these watches in their current form are simple bricks that just tell time and have maybe have a few apps that can stand on their own.

I also see a dedicated ecosystem of services designed just for smartwatches as important to the category’s ultimate potential. New user interfaces such as voice and gestures will need to be applied to smartwatches for them to become easier to use for a mass market.

After wearing multiple smartwatches for the last six months, I have come to see that, in many ways, they represent a revolutionary new way to get info and data. In fact, smartwatches will most likely be the catalysts to launching ‘”glanceable” screens in which their functions are focused on just giving us key bits of data in a timely manner that we can use to initiate other tasks, like reading an important email.

I have become a believer in smartwatches. For me, at least, the smartwatch has become a valuable tool that enhances my smartphone experience and meets some key needs during my busy day. However, we are years away from smartwatches becoming items that a very broad audience will accept and buy. At the very least, smartwatch makers must address the three key issues stated above. More importantly, smartwatches need standalone platforms upon which to innovate, so that the kinds of killer apps and services that return real value to people can be delivered.

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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