TIME 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—Bloomberg/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.

TIME Gadgets

Pebble’s Steel Smartwatch Is Fine, but the Real News Is the New Pebble Appstore

Harry McCracken / TIME

ESPN, Foursquare, Yelp and much more are about to land on your wrist.

For many Kickstarter products, the greatest day of their lives comes when they get shipped to the patrons who backed them on the crowdfunding site. And then nobody ever hears much of anything from them again.

That hasn’t been true with the Pebble smartwatch, though. In 2012, it made headlines by being one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of all time. But after shipping to Kickstarter backers, the company that makes Pebble just kept going, getting its watches into big retail stores and releasing meaty software updates.

Now Pebble is making its biggest moves yet. It’s releasing a new watch, the $249 Pebble Steel. The name tips you off about what’s new about the model, which will be sold on Pebble’s site alongside the still-available $150 classic Pebble.

The company is also getting ready to make all its smartwatches a lot smarter, by launching a Pebble Appstore, which should be live soon. For the first time, it’ll be easy to find third-party apps and install them on the watch. And the software you’ll be able to get will include bigger names — such as Yelp, Foursquare, ESPN and GoPro — and richer capabilities than anything that’s been available so far.

Featurewise, the Steel is the same beast as the original Pebble, with the same monochrome E Ink display, four-button interface, 5-to-7-day battery life, capabilities and apps. Like its predecessor, it talks to the Pebble smartphone app, available for iOS and Android, over Bluetooth, and puts tiny chunks of information — like notifications of incoming calls, text messages and e-mails — on your wrist.

But instead of being ensconced in a bulky plastic case in one of five colors, all this stuff is now part of a somewhat less bulky steel watch in brushed stainless or black matte variants. Both Steel variants have displays protected by abuse-proof Gorilla glass, are waterproof to 5 ATM and come with two bands: a dressy leather one and a sportier one made out of metal links.

Does building a Pebble out of metal rather than plastic make it look classier? Yes, but no wrist-worn gadget with a big monochrome screen is going to exude understated elegance. It’ll always look like a digital watch — which makes sense, because that’s what the Pebble is, among other things. And though the Steel is a bit svelter than the first Pebble, it’s still big, thick and boxy. It’ll call attention to itself, especially if your wrist is on the petite side.

At $249, the Steel is bumping up against the high end of the price range that a device with the Pebble’s current capabilities is worth. But the good news is that apps from the new Appstore should make this watch more useful over time. And the even better news is that all of Pebble’s software and service improvements are available for both the Steel and the original $149 version.

Until now, there’s been no one place to go for Pebble apps, which made finding and installing them a bit of an adventure. With the Appstore, which is built into the iOS and Android apps, it’s a cakewalk. The store, which should go live soon, is already packed with offerings, all of which are free.

Pebble says that thousands of apps, games and watch faces have already been submitted for approval. But you can only install eight apps on your smartwatch at a time, so the smartphone app now includes a “locker” which lets you keep apps on hand without actually putting them on the watch. It’s easy to shuffle them between the watch and the locker.

One of Pebble’s defining features its its minimalism. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, which sports a color touchscreen, camera and fancy apps, Pebble watches and the software they run are happy to err on the side of simplicity. Basically, their overarching goal is to let you keep tabs on your world without removing your smartphone from your pocket or purse quite so often.

So most of the new apps I tried were really, really simple. The ESPN app, for instance, lets you select one sports league, then shows you scores and that’s about it. 7-Minute Workout shows you basic exercises, then uses the watch’s motion detector to detect that you’re doing with them.

Twebble, a Twitter client is surprisingly full-featured. You can even post tweets from the watch, although entering each character requires multiple presses of the watch’s buttons. (Oh, and I couldn’t figure out how to enter a space.)

The thing that’s tough about minimalism is that you need to be just minimalist enough without overdoing it. Foursquare, which lets you quickly check into any nearby business, does the trick: That’s all the Foursquare anybody really needs on their wrist. But Yelp — even though it has more features than Foursquare — feels incomplete. It’s good for tracking down something like a nearby Starbucks or Chipotle, but too skimpy to help you decide where to have dinner. (It doesn’t show what sort of food a restaurant serves, and the reviews are so truncated that they’re not very useful.)

Beyond the Appstore and the new apps it offers, another new feature in Pebble’s software update makes a major difference: It’s now possible to scroll back through notifications which have arrived recently. (Until now, if you weren’t paying attention when one arrived, you’d just miss it.) However, the notifications remain so terse — sometimes the subject lines of e-mails get cut off in mid-sentence — that they sometimes get chopped off before they’ve told you what you want to know.

In short, Pebble is still an intriguing work in progress — as is the entire smartwatch category, really. It’s fun and handy as is, and the $150 pricetag of the original model is a deal. If you’re wavering, wait: If the Appstore and the wares it offers live up to their promise, both the first Pebble and the Steel will just keep getting more useful in the months to come.

TIME Big Picture

Pebble and Glyph: How Crowdfunding Is Creating Disruptive New Products

An early prototype of Avegant's "Glyph" mobile personal theater. Avegant

Two crowdfunded projects that opened up new categories of devices.

While a lot of people watch TV or YouTube or spend their downtime resting or playing, I find that I can be highly entertained by surfing the various crowdfunding sites that have popped up on the Internet over the past few years.

For most of my 33-year career, when entrepreneurs wanted to start a new business or create a new product, they had to go to venture capitalists, funding angels, banks, or in some cases even mortgage their houses to start up their businesses. Although this has been effective for many, thousands of others who had product ideas could not muster up the funding needed, and many products or service ideas died before they ever even had a chance to be created.

Then a few years back, a new source for startup funding popped up: crowdfunding. At its core, a crowdfunding site serves as a kind of clearing house for people with new product ideas that span everything from gadgets to games to books to movies and many more projects for which a person needs funding to bring an idea to life. One of the leading sites is Kickstarter, a service that got major public attention when it was used to crowdfund the Pebble smartwatch.

Here’s the quick version of Pebble’s funding story, according to Wikipedia:

Pebble Technology launched a Kickstarter campaign on April 11, 2012 with an initial fundraising target of $100,000. Backers spending $115 would receive a Pebble when they became available ($99 for the first 200), effectively pre-ordering the $150 Pebble at a discounted price. Within two hours of going live, the project had met the $100,000 goal, and within six days, the project had become the most funded project in the history of Kickstarter, raising over $4.7 million with 30 days left in the campaign.

On May 10, 2012, Pebble Technology announced they were limiting the number of pre-orders. On May 18, 2012, funding closed with $10,266,844 pledged by 68,928 people.

I wanted a good smartwatch, so when I saw it was live, I paid my $115 and was lucky enough to be in one of the first groups to receive the Pebble when it shipped. Since the Pebble started shipping, dozens of other smartwatches have been announced. Kickstarter and Pebble will always be seen by many as ground-zero for the smartwatch market — a market many believe will become a very big segment in the emerging wearable computing arena.

I also like perusing Indiegogo, another crowdfunding site, and Quirky, a site for crowdsourced product ideas. The folks from Mashable listed some other sites that do crowdfunding and are worth checking out.

Since my first backing of a product through Kickstarter, I have found at least a dozen other products that I wanted from various crowdfunding sites, and I continue to look for cool new things that are of interest to me. I also am highly interested in products that not only get major attention but that also get funded fast, since they often represent a product that could impact the future of the product category they represent. This was very true with the Pebble smartwatch: The short time it took the watch to reach its funding success suggested to us researchers that the Pebble struck a nerve with the public. The smartwatch category could potentially be big.

At CES there was a product launched from a company called Avegant: the Glyph. It went live on Kickstarter less than a week ago and met its funding goal of $250,000 within 4 hours. It holds the record for reaching a goal of $250,000 the fastest — done in 3 hours and 56 minutes. (Pebble’s goal was only $100,000 but was reached in two hours.)

The Glyph looks like a high quality stereo headset, but with a fascinating twist to its design. You pull the headpiece down over your eyes and it turns into a set of video monitors to deliver a cinema-like experience, with video content that can come from a smartphone, tablet or PC. It can be connected to the HDMI port on PCs and uses HDMI mini adapters to work with tablets and smartphones. Unlike another head-mounted display from Oculus, the Glyph works with any existing content in Windows, Android and iOS. Software has to be written for the Oculus platform and its focus is specifically on gaming.

Although the Glyph project is still a prototype, the alpha version I played with was very impressive. In headphone mode, it looks and works just like a high-end stereo noise-canceling headset with a battery life of 48 hours. But when you flip the headband down over your eyes, it turns it into a 2D or 3D screen, depending on the content (if you connect it to a 3D DVD player, the content is shown in 3D, for instance). One downside from the first generation is that it has only three hours of battery life in video mode.

The alpha model I tested was also a bit heavy, but the folks from Avegant say that when it’s released this fall, it will be thinner and lighter and will fit better than the alpha model. One other important feature is that it includes diopter controls, so that regardless of your prescription, you can fine tune it so that if you wear glasses you won’t need them.

Once I used the Glpyh, I really wanted one. As a traveler that puts 100,000+ miles under my belt each year, I could see using this while on planes as my audio headset and also my video screen. Although I do use laptops or even my iPad Air for watching movies when traveling, the cinema-like experience that the Glyph delivers is more enticing to me. Its $495 price is also impressive. A good set of noise-canceling headphones costs around $399. For $100 more, you get the cinema video feature, too. It also works with games. Pull one of the games up on a smartphone or tablet, and the Glyph delivers a cinematic view of the game you’re playing, and the smartphone or tablet becomes the controller. Although travelers and gamers might represent its initial audience, I see this product as having a very broad appeal, too.

While Google Glass and other glasses and video-specific goggles will have a place in the market, the Glyph delivers what I think is the next major innovation in headsets. The screens on smartphones and small tablets are just not optimal for delivering really good movie, video or gaming experiences. The Glyph delivers those experience along with a great audio experience. It would not surprise me if many of the top of the line headsets eventually deliver similar video viewing features as part of their offerings, since the Glyph delivers quite a compelling concept for mobile entertainment. The product’s first-mover position will have a big impact on how consumers view this audio/video category in the future.

This is a product to watch since it could become another crowdfunded project that opens up a whole new category of devices.

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.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser