The speedy rate at which tech hardware moves nowadays is astonishing, but the rate at which it innovates is much more stagnant. The desperate attempt to innovate and create markets before competitors do is what drives this industry. In recent memory, the smartwatch is one of the most prominent instances of major tech companies not knowing where to go next, yet trying to force their way there anyway.
Though you could easily argue that BlackBerry popularised the smartphone, it was really Apple’s achievement – just like it was when Apple popularised the MP3 player and the tablet. So, when rumours spread that Apple was developing a smartwatch, the rest of the industry sprang into action, trying to lay claim to the market before Apple created and subsequently lorded over it.
Last week, we saw the official reveal of three different smartwatches – the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the Qualcomm Toq, and Sony’s SmartWatch 2 – all of which will seemingly release before Apple even officially announces its own future-watch. However, the funny thing is that the smartwatch might be one of Apple’s greatest tricks, albeit unintentional. Apple famously tests many, many designs before it unveils a product, and if the product is found wanting, Apple exercises common sense and cans it. If Apple never releases its rumoured smartwatch, self-proclaimed savvy analysts will note that the Cupertino company inadvertently tricked its competitors into mass producing a device that Apple found unworthy of development. Whether or not that’s the case, there are still major problem with the smartwatch.
As we’ve learned from smartphones getting bigger and tablets getting smaller, there’s a touchscreen display size sweet spot that’s much bigger than a smartwatch. Sure, a Nintendo DS, for example, can have a smaller-than-average touchscreen, but we’re not viewing entire web pages, scrolling through tiny, dense text on Reddit, or reading and composing emails and text messages on that device. We’re tapping menus and drawing squigglies.
The smartwatch is supposed to be an extension of your smartphone, perhaps even one day replacing it. In order to perform smartphone tasks, it needs a display large enough to view and type comfortably. The trio of flagship smartwatches all have screens with a size of below 2in, tightly constraining their practical applications. So, you’re paying what is expected to be an average price of $300 (£190) to hurt your eyes scrolling through emails and text messages, and looking at weather icons.
A nice watch is generally quite expensive, yes, but that’s because it’s a fashion accessory. If the only function you wanted out of a watch was to tell the time, you could wear any old piece of cheap plastic on your wrist. Smartwatches, so far, are not pretty. They’re big, thick bricks relative to your wrist. They are not the fashion accessory a watch tends to be. While not having to take your phone out of your pocket all the time would be nice in certain situations, the functions performed by these smartwatches so far are limited thanks to both underpowered (compared to phones) specs and a tiny display. They’re not the computers-on-a-wrist smartwatches depicted in science fiction.
Instead of providing form or function, smartwatch makers appear to be rushing towards an 1850s California mountain that is known to be barren of gold, but hey, maybe they can force gold to exist if they hold enough press conferences about it.
These smartwatches are the result of the way the industry currently works. Thanks to the iPhone, true hardware innovation appeared to happen very quickly (whether or not that is actually the case) – likewise when the iPad created a market for tablets. Now, the consumer tech industry is in something of a standstill after a period of blazingly fast innovation. Hardware manufacturers are looking for the next big thing as if their business depended on it right now. This will be the case at some point, but smartphones and tablets are currently killing it. However, they still have so much room for improvement (batteries, displays viewed in the sun, and so on) that would help the devices kill so much more that a police investigation would be required.
Instead, thanks partly to trying to beat Apple to market and partly because of the stagnant state of the industry where companies are just throwing tech spaghetti at a wall to see what’ll stick, we’re all subject to the smartwatch news cycle. The only things we can do are hope the devices soon fade out of the limelight so we can get back to more important matters, or hope they can obtain both style and a function we can’t live without so we can all hop on the smartwatch train. Then, we can stop feeling like manufacturers are either bored or simply having a go at us.