TIME Gadgets

Samsung Gear S Smartwatch Can Make Calls Without a Paired Phone

Samsung

The predominant smartwatch maker introduces yet another wearable, but this one can fly solo.

Smartwatches are notoriously codependent gadgets. If you want to use one to make calls, you need an auxiliary device nearby to do the cellular legwork. Forget smart, they’re like mini-dumb terminals, wrist-bound proxies for another functionally better-rounded piece of technology.

Until now: Meet the Gear S, a curved-screen smartwatch that maker Samsung says can do phone calls all by its lonesome.

The Gear S uses a curved 2-inch 360-by-480 pixel Super AMOLED display attached to a flex band (with changeable straps), and employs a customizable interface that includes views and fonts Samsung says will let you “read messages and notifications at a single glance.”

The IP67-certified (particle and moisture resistant) wearable is powered by a 1.0 Ghz dual-core processor, has 512MB of memory and 4GB of internal storage, and runs Tizen, the Linux-based operating system for embedded devices. It includes both 3G as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, charges its 300 mAh Li-ion battery (Samsung estimates you’ll get two days out of “typical usage”) with a USB 2.0 cable, and has a battery of tracking tools, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a compass, a heart-rate monitor, an ambient light sensor, an ultraviolet detector and a barometer.

It’ll still sync with or act as a call proxy for a smartphone, of course, if that’s what you prefer, but the big deal — if you care about smartwatches anyway — is that it can get online to check notifications by itself, and you can make and receive calls from your wrist without a secondary device. I see nothing in the specifications about a microphone or speaker, for better or worse, thus ruling out the Dick Tracy angle (meaning, in other words, that you might need a Bluetooth headset to make calls).

Samsung’s covering that angle by simultaneously announcing the Gear Circle, a Bluetooth headset that can pair with smartphones (and while the company doesn’t say as much in the press release, one assumes, the Gear S). The Gear Circle’s extras include a magnetic lock that lets it hang around your neck during downtime, and it’ll vibrate to indicate an incoming call or notification.

TIME Wearables

Android Wear Face-Off: LG G Watch vs. Samsung Gear Live

LG's G Watch (left) and Samsung's Gear Live (right) Jared Newman for TIME

How to pick a smartwatch if you're one of Android Wear's earliest adopters.

Let’s say you plan to ignore the advice of most reviews and buy an Android Wear smartwatch right now. Even though more stylish designs are on the way, you’ve got money to spend and want to see what the fuss is about.

How do you choose between Samsung’s Gear Live and LG’s G Watch? After using each one over the last couple of weeks, I think it’s pretty easy to decide. But first, let’s go through the pros and cons of each watch:

Style

You won’t win a lot of style points for either watch, as they are both thick, square slabs that take up a lot of space across the wrist. In fact, if you hold them next to each other, the watch bodies, bezels and screens are almost exactly the same size.

Where Samsung’s Gear Live stands out, though, is the use of metal around the body and on the clasp under your wrist. The watch band also appears thinner due to its tapered edges, and the snap-in mechanism is less bulky than the G Watch’s more traditional buckle. The Gear Live is a bit gaudier, but it also makes a statement. That’s more my style, given that neither watch is understated to begin with.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Features

The Gear Live and G Watch have almost exactly the same features, as they are required to run the same Android Wear software. Samsung does include a heart rate monitor, but I had trouble getting consistent readings and question whether this is a useful feature anyway. (If you can check your own pulse, you can just as easily measure it with the basic stopwatch function on either watch.)

The G Watch’s best feature, oddly enough, is its selection of watch faces. It has a lot of sharp-looking ones that Samsung doesn’t, and while this will become less of an issue as more third-party watch faces hit the Google Play Store, it’s nice to have some quality faces out of the box.

Advantage: LG G Watch, slightly

Jared Newman for TIME

Comfort

As I mentioned above, the Samsung Gear Live’s watch band has a couple of pins on the end, which you snap into any two holes further up the band. The G Watch has a standard buckle that keeps the watch securely fastened, along with a loop of plastic for holding down the excess strap material.

I found the Gear Live’s band to be more comfortable overall, with ridges on the inside that let your wrist breathe a bit, and it’s nice not to have any excess material to deal with. By comparison, the G Watch’s flat, rubberized band seemed to make my wrist feel sticky and sweaty before long. Both watches do have removable straps, at least.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Battery and Charging

This one isn’t even close. Not only does LG’s G Watch have a larger battery, it also has a better charging cradle that you can just drop the watch onto at night. It’s much more convenient than the Samsung Gear Live’s charging pod, which needs to be snapped onto the underside of the watch in a particular way.

You’ll likely want to charge either watch every night, which actually isn’t a big deal once you get in the habit. (In a way, it’s better than having to charge every few days, because the nightly charge becomes routine.) But the need for a nightly top-up makes a convenient charging mechanism all the more important.

Advantage: LG G Watch

Jared Newman for TIME

Display Quality

In theory, the 320-by-320 resolution AMOLED panel on Samsung’s Gear Live should be the winner over LG’s 280-by-280 LCD screen, as it provides sharper images and better viewing angles.

But the G Watch does have one advantage in its outdoor readability. While neither watch performs well in direct sunlight, LG’s watch does a slightly better job of fending off the sun’s glare at full brightness. It’s not a big enough difference to beat the Gear Live’s display overall, but it does make the displays closer in quality than they look on paper.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live, slightly

Verdict

Style and comfort are extremely important to me considering this is something I have to wear every day, and the Gear Live’s advantages in those areas outweigh its pesky charger and inferior watch faces. (If I was buying one myself, the Gear Live’s $199 price tag compared to $229 for the LG G Watch wouldn’t hurt.)

LG’s G Watch is still worth considering for some users, especially those who plan to swap in their own straps. But I’m not going that route, so the Samsung Gear Live will be my go-to smartwatch as I continue to get a feel for Android Wear.

TIME Gadgets

Too Many Android Wear Apps Are Missing the Point

Jared Newman for TIME

Watered-down smartphone apps are spreading like weeds on Google's new wearable platform.

If you want an example of everything wrong with smartwatch apps right now, just look at all the Android Wear calculators.

I currently count four calculator apps for Google’s wearable platform, and they’re all useless. You need pinpoint touch precision to enter each number, and none of the apps include a backspace key for when you inevitably mistype something. Using a calculator app on your phone would be faster and less frustrating.

These unnecessary calculator apps underscore the biggest challenge for Android Wear–and for that matter, all smartwatches–right now: Most people are happy to just take out their smartphones, so there’s little need for a watch that tries to do all the same things on a smaller screen.

For smartwatches to make sense, they need to go beyond what a phone can do on its own. That idea seems lost on developers who are creating weak imitations of existing smartphone apps, including games, drawing apps, flashlights and calendars.

Google has tried to discourage these kinds of apps, both in its documentation (“inputs requiring fine-grained motor skills are avoided”) and through Wear’s interface, which deliberately makes smartphone-like apps difficult to launch. But developers are undeterred. In fact, someone has even come out with a third-party app launcher for Wear that seems likely to encourage more bad behavior.

Even some of the highlighted Android Wear apps in the Google Play Store miss the point: Why would anyone want to browse Tinder on a smartwatch, when the smartphone version offers a better experience? How often are you really going to ask the Eat24 app for delivery when you can only get exactly what you’ve ordered in the past?

To make the case for smartwatches, developers need to think more critically about the apps they’re building. To that end, I think it might help to consider a few basic questions:

  • Does the app provide a useful service in specific situations where taking out a phone is impractical?
  • Does the watch show users something important that they’d miss if they didn’t take out their phones in time?
  • Does the watch app save significant time without sacrificing significant functionality?

Android Wear does have a handful of apps that answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, and app makers should take inspiration from these good examples.

Last weekend, for instance, I played a round of golf with help from the Golfshot app. After using the smartphone app to select the course I was playing on, the watch provided a constant read-out of my distance from the hole. If I was any good at golf, this would have been tremendously helpful for deciding which club to use, as my phone was safely stowed away in my golf bag for the rest of the outing. (See question number one.) It’d be even better if the app let you enter a score at the end of each hole, but this is a fine start.

Delta’s Android app is another example of a wearable app done right. If you check into a flight on your phone, the watch provides up to date boarding information right on your wrist (question two) and presents your boarding pass to use at the gate (question three).

Similarly, Allthecooks’ Android Wear functions can save time by showing recipe instructions on your wrist. Having those instructions follow you around the kitchen makes a lot more sense than having to constantly look back to your phone or tablet for reference.

One of the big criticisms of smartwatches so far is that they only make life more complicated. They represent another device to carry, another screen to keep charged every night, another set of apps to deal with.

The thing that interests me about Android Wear is its potential to simplify, presenting information in a way that helps us think about our phones less often. That’s not going to happen if developers keep taking the easy path, turning Android Wear into another screen full of apps.

TIME Smartwatches

Android Wear Review: The Watch That Wants to Save You From Your Phone

Jared Newman for TIME

Google's smartwatch platform shows promise, but needs better hardware and smarter features.

A funny thing has happened to me over the last week and a half, as I’ve been reviewing a couple Android Wear smartwatches from LG and Samsung: Instead of being the guy who takes out his phone at every opportunity, I’ve become the one who stands idly by while other people thumb around on their handsets.

It’s not that I’m always fiddling with the screen on my wrist instead; I’m actually spending less time interacting with screens in general. By having all my phone’s notifications in view, I can ignore the ones that aren’t important and quickly deal with the ones that are. And because the phone stays in my pocket, I’m not tempted to spend the next five minutes looking at Twitter or Facebook. Against all logic, tethering a computer to my wrist has been liberating.

But is that idea enough to convince people to start wearing watches again? It’s doubtful, especially in Android Wear’s current form.

Right now, there are two smartwatches that run on Google’s Android Wear platform. Samsung’s Gear Live costs $199 and is a bit gaudy with its metallic trim and slim snap-on wristband, while the $229 LG G Watch strikes a more utilitarian look with a rubberized band and all-plastic finish. In both cases, the aesthetic leans toward “geek badge of honor,” thanks to clunky rectangular bodies and thick black bezels around the displays. (I’ll compare the two watches more in a future post, as I’ve only spent a day with LG’s model. My quick impressions are that Samsung has the better screen and more appealing design, while LG’s drop-in dock is more convenient for nightly charging.)

The Notification Machine

Like other smartwatches on the market already, such as the Pebble and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear line, Android Wear puts your phone’s notifications on your wrist. But what stands about Google’s approach is how little effort it takes to view these notifications and take action on them with a swipe or voice command.

With Android Wear, there’s hardly any setup involved. Everything’s tied to the actionable notifications on Android phones, so once you’ve paired the watch over Bluetooth, you can immediately do things like manage e-mails, dismiss text messages, control the phone’s music playback, glance at sports scores and get traffic alerts from Google Now. The screen stays in greyscale mode until you tap it or tilt it toward you, at which point you can view each notification by flicking upward.

Jared Newman for TIME

 

This can lead to some delightful moments as you get in the habit of glancing at your wrist for information. Last weekend, for instance, I made a quick trip to the grocery store to grab some breakfast items when I caught a notification from Todo Cloud, a free smartphone app that supports location-based reminders. It was telling me to pick up some pasta–something I’d reminded myself to do earlier–and I would have missed the message if it hadn’t been waiting on my wrist. Without any extra effort on my part, Android Wear saved me a return trip to the store.

It helps that the software is smooth and responsive, and generally runs without any glitches, but I do have a few nitpicks: It takes a little too long for the system to recognize swiping after the screen lights up, and I wish you could un-dismiss a notification if you accidentally swipe it away. It’d also be nice if the main screen had an icon bar, like the one on Android phones, so you could get a high-level view of which notifications are waiting.

Android Wear will also face some natural growing pains, as a lot of third-party apps still haven’t optimized their code for wearables. For example, Secret can notify you when a friend posts, but doesn’t show you the actual post on the watch. You can retweet or “favorite” a Twitter mention, but you can’t reply directly by voice. In WhatsApp, there’s no way to view full messages, reply to them or mark them as read. Because Android Wear is supposed to just work, it’s disappointing when these apps don’t.

That same kind of uncertainty carries over to Android Wear’s voice commands, which you trigger by tapping the main screen or saying “OK Google.” This is useful for quickly dictating a text message, setting a reminder or pulling up turn-by-turn directions, but most third-party apps don’t work with voice — and the handful that do require you to memorize specific syntax. Voice recognition also stumbles in some areas, always recognizing “Android Wear” as “Android Where,” for instance, and failing to interpret punctuation commands like “comma” and “question mark.” I quickly learned to avoid voice unless I knew exactly what I was going to get in response.

Why Not Just Take Out Your Phone?

A lot of the above issues are annoyances rather than dealbreakers. But as Google tries to improve the platform, there’s a more fundamental dilemma that Android Wear needs to figure out: If most people are happy to whip out their phones, why would they care about a device that spares them from doing so?

The answer, I think, will come from functions that are not as practical on a smartphone–things you might not do at all if you have to take the device out of your pocket. Android Wear lays a foundation for these kinds of uses, but doesn’t provide nearly enough of them.

Going back to my grocery store example, while I was shopping I also saw another notification from Google Wallet, letting me know that I was close to the in-store Starbucks. The reminder alone wasn’t useful, but imagine if Wallet had gone a step further and put my Starbucks card’s barcode on my wrist. If every loyalty card, coupon, ticket and boarding pass could pop up in the right location, I wouldn’t even have to think about reaching for my wallet or phone. This is definitely possible with Android Wear–Delta is already doing it for boarding passes–but it’s not a centerpiece of the platform right now.

Likewise, Google has promised the ability to unlock your smartphone or Chromebook with a paired Android Wear device, and it’s easy to imagine this capability expanding to sensitive third-party apps in the future. But even the basic unlocking feature won’t arrive until the next version of Android comes out this fall.

What we have now is a classic Google work-in-progress. The software needs more ways to surpass the abilities of users’ smartphones, and the hardware needs to get thinner, lighter and less clunky. (Motorola’s Moto 360 watch will bring some much-needed style to the lineup later this summer, but it’s not a panacea for bulky tech.) And while I’m not bothered by the one-day battery life of these watches, they need more convenient ways to recharge overnight, such as a wireless charging mat on your nightstand. Until the hardware and software are further along, saving yourself from your phone should probably wait.

TIME FindTheBest

4 Reasons Nobody Cares About Smartwatches

If you watched Google present Android Wear last week, you’d think the smartwatch was the hottest product on the market. What could be better than an intelligent timepiece that can take calls and understand voice commands?

It turns out nobody cares. At FindTheBest, we compared traffic and user engagement for dozens of product categories, from smartphones and laptops to printers and processors. The results? FindTheBest users are three times more likely to research fitness trackers than smartwatches, and over 40 times more likely to research smartphones. Even the godawful Bluetooth headset is more popular.

So we asked ourselves: why isn’t the smartwatch as popular as its wrist-based cousin, the fitness tracker? Why hasn’t the mainstream market bought in? Here are four reasons:

1. Smartwatches are too thick

According to WatchStation, the average case thickness for a standard wristwatch is between 8-12 mm, while anything in the 6-8 mm range is considered “thin.” Unfortunately, most smartwatches clock in north of 10 mm, making them seem more like clunky gadgets than sleek, sophisticated timepieces of the future. For a tech geek, this might seem like a petty complaint, but for the mass market, design and comfort beat specs and features any day (see Jobs, Steve).

 

Yes, the recent Sony SmartWatch 2 (9 mm), Samsung Gear Live (8.9 mm), and LG G Watch (9.9 mm) are thinner than most of their rivals—a promising trend for the industry. But you can’t disrupt a market when your product is about the same as existing options—you need something noticeably and undeniably better. Shave off another 3-5 mm and then we’ll talk.

2. Smartwatches are too expensive

For classic wristwatches, prices are either dirt cheap (ex: a $10 grocery store Casio) or criminally expensive (ex: a $20k Rolex). The problem? People tend to think about watches as one of these two things, and rarely anything in between. Smartwatch manufacturers have attempted to create a new price category altogether, where most models range from $100 to $250. It seems reasonable enough on paper, but regrettably, wealthy consumers don’t want Twitter updates and digital displays (smartwatches) as much as they want Swiss craftsmanship and family heirlooms (Rolexes). Meanwhile, average Joes won’t want to spend much more than they did on last year’s Casio.

 

Obviously, $10 is unreasonable for a smartwatch, but what about $50 to $99? If manufacturers can price these things more like Apple TVs and less like iPods, we might see a bump in mainstream adoption.

3. Smartwatches haven’t solved the battery life conundrum

Like prices for standard wristwatches, battery life on smartwatches is polarized. A few select models—like the Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity and ConnecteDevice Cookoo—can run for months without a single charge. Pretty much everything else will be lucky to survive a week. It gets even worse for the prettiest displays (like the LG G’s LCD screen or the Galaxy Gear’s AMOLED display), where you’ll need to plug in every night—in other words, a charging ritual no better than a smartphone’s.

The problem is that the more “smart” a watch is, the worse battery life it tends to have. Even with their months of battery life, the Citizen Eco-Drive and Cookoo are hardly smartwatches—they’re mostly analog timepieces with a couple of neat notification features. The 7-day-battery Pebble Steel is a little better, but it can’t compete feature-for-feature with the 1.5-day-battery Galaxy Gear.

 

 

In the end, smartwatch manufacturers need to rethink battery life entirely. They need to ask themselves how they can bake in all the same features without requiring customers to plug in night-after-night. If you’re not convinced this is a problem, consider that the best idea the industry has had yet is to “flick your wrist to turn on the backlight.” I mean seriously.

4. Smartwatches don’t have a compelling reason to exist

Quick: what is a smartwatch’s primary benefit, in just a few words? Voice-based texting? Safer driving? Taking calls without getting your phone out of your pocket or purse? Seeing a Facebook notification three seconds faster?

The smartwatch’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t solve any tangible problem. The first personal computers revolutionized productivity. The first MP3 players allowed people to store thousands of songs in one place. Smartphones let consumers take the Internet with them in their pocket. Even fitness trackers let people seamlessly track their exercise goals. Until the smartwatch proves it can do one thing really well—that it can solve one simple, common, necessary problem—the device will be nothing more than a hobby for geeks and an excuse for Samsung to make creepy ads. Time is ticking.

TIME Smartwatches

5 Quick Impressions of an Android Wear Smartwatch

Jared Newman for TIME

Here's what it's like to wear a Google-powered smartwatch for a day.

A smartwatch isn’t the kind of thing you can review overnight. It takes a while to get a sense of how useful it is in daily life, how well the design works and how comfortable it feels.

But having spent the day with the Samsung Gear Live, one of the first smartwatches for Google’s Android Wear platform, I’m at least starting to form some first impressions. Here are a handful of things that come to mind after having Android Wear on my wrist for most of the day:

Deleting unwanted e-mails is my killer app: Like most other tech writers, my inbox is constantly overrun with junk–usually PR pitches that are incredibly boring or irrelevant. So far, the best part of Android Wear is the ability to delete these e-mails with a swipe and a tap, leaving only the messages that actually matter. My only complaint is that the delete confirmation stays on the screen for a half-second too long. In other words, I still can’t get rid of unwanted e-mails fast enough.

The “reach for your phone” instinct is tough to shake: There were a couple of times throughout the day when, out of instinct, I reached into my pocket see if I’d missed any notifications on my phone. Android Wear is supposed to prevent you from having to check your phone all the time, but I think this will be a tough habit to break.

I’m much more aware of Google Now, now: The problem with Google Now on a smartphone is that it’s trying to give you timely information, but you might not see it unless you take out your phone and open the Google Search app. With a smartwatch, those same Google Now cards are sitting on your wrist, where you’re far less likely to miss them. This can be annoying–I don’t constantly need to see, for instance, that my flight tonight is on time–but hopefully I’ll get enough useful tidbits to make Google Now’s presence worthwhile.

“Mute” is a must-have feature, but could be better: If we’re going to start strapping computers to our wrists, we’ll need a way to shut them off, letting people know that we won’t be constantly distracted. Cleverly, Android Wear lets you turn off notifications by swiping down from the top of the screen. It’s a great feature for any smartwatch, but it leaves me wondering why it doesn’t silence my smartphone as well.

It’s unfinished: This is currently an unreleased product, so a few bugs and missing features are to be expected. So far, I haven’t been able to get directions on the watch or respond to text messages by voice. Many apps aren’t optimized for Android Wear yet, and some of the features Google has announced won’t be available until later this year, including the ability to skip the password screen on a paired Android phone or Chromebook.

I also realize I haven’t scratched the surface of what Android Wear can do. As I spend more time with the watch, I’ll be looking for apps that work well, and testing things like Chromecast playback and music controls. The LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live both launch on July 7, so consider these impressions a work in progress–kind of like Android Wear itself.

TIME Big Picture

For Smartwatches to Hit It Big, Context Is Key

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

A while back, I talked about health and fitness wearables and my failure to see how they appeal to a broader market. This week, I want to talk about the potentially lucrative category of smartwatches.

If we count Microsoft’s Smart Personal Object Technology (or SPOT) watches as smartwatches, then I have been using these kinds of devices for many years. However, even the current (or soon to be shipping) crop of smartwatches leaves me puzzled. I still question how big of a market the smartwatch category could be. Honestly, I’m on the fence.

To dive deeper, I think it would be helpful to look at a few current and future value propositions related to smartwatches. We have to start with this question: What is the value of a smart, easily viewed, small screen on my person? Answer this and we’re getting somewhere.

The key is that the smartwatch screen is always in view. Unlike other screens – my smartphone, tablet, PC, TV and others – this smart object on my wrist is easily viewable throughout the day as long as I’m wearing it. To answer my question, we have to look at some things I may personally care to be notified of, regardless of whether I’m looking at any other screen. The key to this is context.

When am I not looking at my smartphone, PC, tablet or TV? When I am driving, at a lunch or dinner meeting, or walking around the mall, for instance. These are the times a smartwatch must deliver value beyond keeping time.

Currently, the proposed value is in notifications. The smartwatch will notify me of an email, text or Facebook message, Twitter mention, incoming call, and more. Any app that pushes a notification to my phone can and does push a notification to my wrist.

More often than not, I find this more distracting than helpful. I get a lot of email, text messages, Twitter mentions, and calls throughout the day. My wrist buzzes quite a bit, mostly with notifications that aren’t useful to me. The reason? The watch (and even my phone, for that matter) doesn’t understand context.

I may not want to see all my emails, but if I’m waiting for an important response from a client, it would be useful to see certain messages. I don’t want to be notified of all phone calls; only ones that are urgent – say, from my wife.

This goes beyond a filter. It is all about context. The device needs to know more about me and my situation to be useful. Smartwatches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be useful on the wrist.

For example, when I’m in a meeting, I don’t want to look rude as I check my watch 15 times over the course of an hour every time it buzzes. But what if my phone or watch knew where my next meeting was and would alert me of any traffic issues I should be aware of that may change the time I need to leave in order to not be late for my next appointment?

This is what makes some of the proposed use cases of Android Wear somewhat interesting. Google Now does a decent job of focusing on contextual data that’s useful at a glance. This could be location data, traffic data, and a host of other things that can equip us to take action and make decisions. Ultimately, this type of contextual data that’s useful in helping us make choices is where the value of a wrist-worn smart screen may lie.

My biggest misgiving is that we will experience notification overload. Even though I test some smartwatches that have useful filters for which apps notify the watch and which don’t, I still suffer from notification overload. My concern is that if we open the wrist screen to notification from solicitors – trying to get our attention with deals, discounts, and coupons – we again suffer from notification overload. There will have to be an intelligent way for much smarter notifications to reveal themselves if the smartwatch category is to go mainstream.

Part of me feels that the smartwatch is still a solution in search of a problem. But another part of me feels that there’s value to be found on a screen that’s more easily viewed than a screen in a pocket or a purse. Many seem to believe that smartwatches may be the next hot category. I still have my doubts. Mass market appeal and convenience is what the smartwatch needs to find. Until then, it will be a niche market.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.

TIME Wearables

iOS 8 Has the Ingredients for a Pretty Good Apple Watch

Apple didn’t announce an iWatch at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, nor was it expected to.

But what happened instead was just as intriguing: With iOS 8, Apple quietly laid the groundwork for what could be a great wearable platform, adding the raw ingredients to compete with Google, Samsung and others.

One of the big new features in iOS 8 is interactive notifications, which allow users to directly respond to e-mails, calendar appointments and social media posts without going into the app itself.

Yes, it’s one of several features that Apple “borrowed” from Android, and this may not be a coincidence given that actionable notifications are the centerpiece of Google’s own wearable platform, Android Wear. Instead of just seeing static notifications on your wrist, Android Wear will let you respond to them while leaving your phone in your pocket. Without a similar system in iOS, Apple would have been at a big disadvantage.

Interactive notifications aren’t the only smartwatch-friendly feature in iOS 8. Apple is beefing up Siri with streaming voice (so you can confirm what you’re saying as you talk), support for more languages and the ability to activate voice commands by saying “Hey, Siri.”

Siri will also be able to control home automation setups through HomeKit, which makes a lot of sense for a wearable device. You don’t want to have to dig out your phone or tablet just to tweak the thermostat or turn down the lights.

And of course, there’s Health and HealthKit, which will allow users to keep track of all their fitness tracking applications. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep an eye on these stats while exercising, without having to strap an iPhone onto your shoulder?

I’ll cheerfully admit that the case for an iWatch isn’t airtight. There are still tough hardware problems to solve, including battery efficiency, fashionability (for both men and women) and pricing, and I can still pick out some things I’d like to see on the software side (such as third-party app support in Siri).

But Apple’s never been known to tick every feature box at once. Instead, the company tends to take its time building up from a foundation. In hindsight, that’s exactly what Apple did as it built up iOS on the iPhone, before launching the iPad a few years later. With iOS 8, it’s a lot easier to believe that an iWatch is coming next.

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.

TIME Gadgets

How Qualcomm Is Tackling the Smartwatch Battery Bottleneck

Jared Newman for TIME

Qualcomm brings voice controls to its experimental Toq watch, but keeps features on a tight leash.

For Qualcomm’s Toq smartwatch, everything traces back to the battery.

The experimental smartwatch’s color Mirasol display can last for days on a charge, unlike any other full-color watch. The battery lives inside the wristband, allowing the watch itself to be smaller. And when the battery runs dry, a wireless charging station keeps users from fumbling with cables or messing with dock connectors.

Battery life is also the reason Toq’s new voice commands are limited in scope. Qualcomm just added Nuance-powered voice dictation to its smartwatch this week, but users might not even notice unless they know where to go. You can use voice to record a text message, but you can’t use it to write emails, launch apps or set reminders. And unlike Nuance’s Android app, you can’t initiate a voice command just by uttering a special phrase. Doing so would have caused a significant hit to battery life.

Toq exists, in part, to tackle these kinds of battery issues in wearable technology. Qualcomm’s goal isn’t to sell a lot of watches, but to figure out how people use wearables so the company can build better chips, and expand on its vast mobile processor business. Although Toq is available to anyone who will pay $250 for it, it’s more of an experiment than a mass market product. It’s also a showcase, aimed at getting Qualcomm’s processors, Mirasol display and other technologies into wearables from major gadget vendors.

In the case of voice controls, Qualcomm wants to figure out subtle ways to conserve power while users are speaking to their watches. Ultimately, the information Qualcomm collects may help the company design a family of chips that are better-suited for wearable technology.

“On the watch, I think it’s going to be important to balance functionality versus days of use, and I just don’t think we have enough data yet,” Rob Chandhok, Senior Vice President of Qualcomm Technologies and President of Qualcomm Interactive Platforms, said in an interview.

Nuance, whose speech recognition software powers Toq’s voice controls, benefits from the arrangement as well. Matt Revis, Nuance Vice President of Mobile Product Management, said the company will use Toq to learn how people use voice on smartwatches, and pitch its own voice services as a feature for other device makers.

“We’re trying to learn about what makes a great wearable platform for voice, in particular how voice can integrate into the overall experience, and the more of these types of integrations we can do, the more we’ll learn,” Revis said.

It’s unclear how many test subjects Qualcomm has. Last September, Chandhok told my colleague Harry McCracken that Qualcomm would be happy to sell tens of thousands of units, but he wouldn’t reveal any sales figures to me.

“I think like any company, we’d hoped to sell more, but we’re doing well with it, we’ve learned a lot, and it’s translating into relationships with customers and partners that really match what the business strategy was,” Chandhok said.

Chandhok also wouldn’t get into details on any potential arrangements with device makers, but said the company is working with partners. This is just a guess on my part, but with Qualcomm confirmed as a partner for Google’s Android Wear platform, and with device makers promising always-on, color displays, I have a feeling Toq’s technology will turn up in other smartwaches soon enough.

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