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How smartwatches need to improve to achieve mass market appeal

Analysing and testing technology is my job, but I am just a geek at heart. I love tech toys and gadgets and am really blessed that I get to work with them for a living. So when the Pebble smartwatch was listed on Kickstarter I was one of the first to buy in. I was really intrigued with the idea that I could wear a screen on my wrist that mirrored some of the content on my smartphone, and I wanted to see for myself if smartwatches had legs and could actually capture the attention of a mass market in the future.

The first thing I realised when I unboxed the first generation of Pebble's smartwatch was that it was geeky looking and not very fashionable. For male geeks this might be okay, but for the masses I saw it as dead in the water.

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 on the Pebble itself. On the other hand, I appreciated the alerts and how they impacted my interaction with my smartphone.

The good news for potential Pebble buyers is that the Pebble is getting smarter each month and the company is creating more stylish watchbands as part of its evolution, as shown by the new Pebble Steel. This is still for male geeks and will not attract many women in its current form, but over time I am sure that will change.

Late last year I also got a chance to test Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch. This watch has been deemed a failure by the technorati since its design is even geekier than the Pebble, and the early version was tied to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. As more gadgets were upgraded to Android 4.3 and above, the Gear added support for more devices, such as the popular Galaxy S4. But at first, the software was very unstable, prompting reviewers to basically bury the Gear before it had a chance to get better.

At CES, there were at least 10 new smartwatches, and it is inevitable that many more will come out in 2014, attempting to capitalise on the potential market for these wearable devices. I feel that unless they nail form and function in the future, 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, and I hope that is on the cards. But after using two 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 at least three major usability and design issues.

The first is the design itself. Most women would not be caught dead wearing the current crop of smartwatches. Most men wouldn't wear them either. While people buy watches to tell the time, and in most cases that is its only function, the number one criteria in choosing a watch is how it will look on a person. It is a fashion statement, not a technological one. That is why there are well over 100,000 individual watch designs available and almost all are based on how it looks on the wrist. Many people have more than one watch for occasions like sports, work, and especially when going out on dates and social gatherings where clothes and watch need to match. Unfortunately, when tech companies create smartwatches the focus is on the electronics and design comes second. If smartwatches want to reach a broader market, design and function must be equal.

The second thing that is important to understand is that smartwatches need a killer app to drive greater demand. For me, the killer app is the ability to alert me to incoming messages and emails. Like most people I live a very busy life and am often in and out of meetings, driving, working at my desk or talking to people in various places during the day, making it difficult to keep up with messages. The smartwatch is just a wrist screen that is tied to my smartphone. But for me, these smartwatches are worth their hefty asking price, since they deliver exactly what I want and need in all types of business, social, and even entertainment environments.

I also like the fact that my Galaxy Gear has a watch face that includes the outside temperature. We call it "at a glance" computing since that is what it delivers – a simple glance gives me key bits of info that are important to me throughout my day. Of course I could just pull out my smartphone and get the same info, but that is not always appropriate. In fact it is illegal when driving and rude when in meetings.

The third element is software apps and an ecosystem to support them. A key to this is making apps 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. Pebble also has an app store in the works. However, eventually these watches need to be standalone devices. If I forget my smartphone for some reason, in their current form smartwatches are just (small) bricks that only tell the time and maybe have a few apps that work independently.

Smartwatches are a new platform for innovation and while they should be tied to smartphones, they should also be capable of a lot of functionality on their own. I also see a dedicated ecosystem of services designed just for smartwatches as important to their ultimate potential. New user interfaces such as voice and even 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 nine months, I have become a believer. At least for me they have become a valuable tool that enhances my smartphone experience and meets some key needs during my busy day. However, we are years away from them becoming something that a very broad audience will accept and buy.

At the very least, smartwatch makers must address the three key issues stated above. Perhaps more importantly, though, they must see the smartwatch as a standalone platform that needs killer apps and services which deliver real value and meet the needs of anyone who will buy and wear them.