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Why Android Wear smartwatches just aren’t smart enough

I find the whole smartwatch craze rather amusing, even more so now that Google has officially announced Android Wear, with two models, made by LG and Samsung, shipping next month. One-day battery life? Bwaaahaha. Do they never learn? Microsoft-powered smartwatches got better than that a decade ago, and short battery life still turned out to be one of the main reasons the timepieces failed.

In product design you can never ignore existing behaviour. A watch is a set-it-and-forget-it device. I suppose some gadget geeks accustomed to daily smartphone charges (or less) will be dumb enough to buy. But smart consumers will be Android Wear wary. Just ask Microsoft about the road to ruin, which is paved with the best intentions, the right manufacturing partners, and a concept seemingly smart that isn't.

Right for the few

I sympathise with the gadget geeks who on Google+ disagree with my assessment about battery life. We've had quite the fervent comment discussion this week. I've been where they are now – enthusiastic about the new thing but wrong about mass-market potential. In January 2004, I wrote:

Yesterday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates revealed that MSN Direct (formerly SPOT) watches are ready for sale. Fossil and Suunto are the first manufacturers of the watches, which serve up news, weather, instant messages, sports and calendar information via FM. Beyond the price of the watch, users pay $9.95 (£6) a month or, under an annual plan, about $60 (£35) a year for the MSN Direct service. Watch owners configure the service on a PC.

Overall, I was fairly sceptical about the usefulness of a MSN Direct watch. So, my testing didn't begin with enthusiasm about the latest new toy. That said, I find that I use some features, such as the Weather, fairly frequently. I also particularly like alerts that beep and flash when important news events occur.

I also questioned recharging the battery every couple of days or paying an extra fee for receiving content on the watch. In practice, while a minor annoyance, I didn't find the frequent recharging to be a major inconvenience.

I tested the first watch for about a month before writing about it. Over time, I found that frequent charging was annoying, and research conducted for analyst reports revealed battery life to be top priority among potential devices buyers. With watches, people often measure battery life in years, not days, or even a day. Frequent charging asked too much then, as it does now.

The rebuttal: People are accustomed to charging smartphones on a daily basis. Perhaps, but consumer research still shows battery life to be paramount – revealed if nowhere else in terms of the features device manufacturers emphasise most in product marketing.

Look around you, fewer people wear watches because their smartphones provide the time. My analyst research revealed that trend well underway a decade ago, with respect to dumb phones. Watches are more functional jewellery – set-it-and-forget-it – but not Android Wear.

Wrong for the many

But the big problem is overlap. The watch and phone do too much of the same thing, with respect to providing information. Why carry both devices, when the smartphone does as much or more?

On Google+, Michael Interbartolo asked me: "Name a set-it and forget-it watch that plays music, gives me turn-by-turn directions and other contextual information when I need it and the time the rest of the time".

I responded: "I refer you to the first smartphones, which offered amazing informational utility on the go compared to PCs but only started to sell after key attributes reached maturity. Battery life is high among them, and consumer research continues to rate battery life among the top priorities among buyers".

Cassette tapes and vinyl records could be the applicable analogy. While more portable, the tapes were less functional and duplicated benefits already available from records. But in the 1980s, CDs offered better benefits – portability, sound quality, and more – and displaced vinyl. Perhaps by the fifth generation – the third, optimistically – voiceless interaction will allow smartwatches to replace smartphones, and with as good or better battery life. That's a potential point of consumer inflection, but Android Wear today is at best a geek wet dream.

Cool for some

In 2004, Microsoft did so much right, starting with partners which were established watchmakers. Google works with electronics companies that have no experience selling timepieces. That's great for gadget geeks but not the mass market.

More from my post 10 years ago:

Microsoft is trying to make its computing products more cool, something more associated with Apple. A wrist watch is more than just a timepiece. It's a piece of jewellery. Jewellery is a status symbol, too – think Rolex watches in some circles and body piercings in others, or both. So, I would encourage Microsoft and its watch manufacturer partners to carefully consider their marketing, emphasising style and status as much as the informational features.

They did just that, and concerning the service delivering information, I recommended:

Then there is the "cool" the service offers. Consider that the watch also receives instant messages. How about John the teenage or college-age boyfriend zinging romantic IMs from his laptop in class to girlfriend Jane's watch? Or Fred the bored employee with no Internet access at work quietly catching the latest sports scores on his MSN Direct watch? Sharp marketing could easily wrap these scenarios to emphasise style and being cool.

Google and its Android Wear partners should take that advice, too. Style is behavioural, too. There are great benefits to that information on the wrist.

But Microsoft had an advantage, by using FM radio to dispatch information. No phone required. Until the smartwatch is an independent cellular device with long battery life, it won't be smart enough for most consumers.