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The wearable space
One can define wearable technology as follows:
Technology you wear that incorporates computer and advanced electronic technologies. The designs often incorporate practical functions and features, but may also have a purely critical or aesthetic agenda.
There’s no doubt that there’s many use cases for wearable technology; Google Glass, Smartwatches, different biometric sensors all represent a different segment of the wearable space. Google Glass and all kinds of biometric sensors represent the technology of the future; smartwatches represent the technology of tomorrow.
Watches have been available for quite some time, in spite of this it’s only in the recent years that smartwatches has taken off as a consumer product. With Google’s recently released Android Wear this space is now really heating up.
In just a few years we have moved our lives away from the desktop computer and into our smartphones and tablets. It’s been a drastic change, and our lives have changed accordingly. The wearable technology that’s being developed right now will bring the same type of change. We’ll be able to have real glanceable information just a glimpse away. No more taking out your phone to check the latest messages, flick your wrist, see the message and reply using voice commands.
Only one question remains; is this just a fad, or are smartwatches here to stay?
The history of smartwatches
After failing to attract investors Pebble Technology sought out help from Kickstarter, a worldwide crowd-sourcing platform. In April 2012 their campaign for funding the Pebble Smartwatch went live on Kickstarter. After raising over $10.2M it was the most successful campaign ever to be launched on Kickstarter.
As if this weren’t enough, on the 20th of March 2014 Pebble announced that they sold over
400 000 Pebbles in 2013, not bad for a company that employed, at that time, under 50 people. It’s been estimated that this brought in over $60M in revenues for the company. According to George Zachary, a Charles River Ventures partner and Pebble investor, the smartwatch maker is on track to double its revenues in 2014.
The second iteration of the Pebble, the Pebble Steel, was introduced at CES in early 2014. Although priced $100 over the original Pebble smartwatch the device is in high demand. The new version features many improvements over the first Pebble, and reviewers seem to agree that the price jump is justified.
One cannot write about smartwatches and not include Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Introduced at Samsung’s Unpacked event on September 4th 2013, the electronics manufacturer was the first of the major companies to introduce a smartwatch to the market. Some critics argue that this device was designed and pushed in a hurry just to beat Apple and Google to the finish line. The watch received generally negative feedback and was criticized for poor battery life and lack of apps available. Despite the negative reviews Samsung continues iterating the device; the second generation of the smartwatch, the Gear 2, was unveiled on February 23rd 2014 and it’s expected to hit the shelves sometime in April.
The biggest news so far in 2014 is undoubtedly the announcement of Google’s new OS, Android Wear. Since being revealed on March 18th, technology enthusiasts all over the world have dubbed this the biggest step for smartwatches ever. Built on Google’s already open Android platform, the OS is made to work seamlessly with a smartphone. This is the first step by one of the three big ones into the marketplace. Seeing a major company like Google releasing its own dedicated smartwatch OS is a sure sign that we’ll be seeing some rather great products in the near future.
On the same day, LG and Motorola also revealed their smartwatch plans, and yes, they’ll be running Android Wear. Both companies say that their watches will be available sometime this summer.
The watch as an assistant
Google Now will play a major role in Google’s smartwatch move. Google Now is of course Google’s take on a personal assistant, and if the experience is anything like it’s on the mobile platform, it’ll be nothing short of amazing. Glancing at your wrist and having the device instantly knowing what information you’re looking for is something that one could only dream of 5 years ago. Being at home and your watch buzzes because you’re late for work or your eTicket shows up just as you’re about to board the plane, it’s a phenomenal thought, and it’s soon becoming your reality.
Android is built on openness, and Android Wear is no different. Developers can take advantage of loads of API integrations and by that help building the perfect assistant. We should expect to see some great apps and great design languages being developed for the new platform.
Apple takes a different approach, as usual. They have yet to release anything regarding a smartwatch, but the rumor-mill has it that they’re building a watch to be released either in Q3 or Q4 of 2014 or early 2015. One theory is that we’ll see something this summer at Apple’s yearly WWDC conference at the same time as they’re showing of iOS 8.
The latest spinning out of the mill is that Apple is heavily focused on health and fitness for their new iOS, and with the iWatch they’re expected to ship a version of iOS 8 that includes an app called Healthbook which will mark their entrance into the world of smartwatches, health and fitness.
We also expect Apple to tightly integrate Siri into the iWatch. Analysts seems to think that it’ll play a role much like Google Now will on devices running Android Wear. It will however be essential for Apple to figure out how to make Siri faster. Google Now usually parses voice right on the device, and if unsure they send the voice clip to the cloud to be parsed. Apple approaches this differently; everything is sent and parsed in the cloud. This is a major drawback and it’s something that the Big Green has to figure out before launching the iWatch. They cannot send voice commands from the watch to the phone and then to Nuance’s servers – it will not be the Apple experience.
Apple likes to “keep it closed”, but recently it has opened their products and services slightly for third-party developers. CarPlay, Apple’s new dashboard for your car, currently includes support for Spotify, Rdio and YouTube, in addition to a few essentials like phone and messages. Although currently “invitation only”, they’ve said they want to open it up to all third-party developers in the near future. This marks a big step for Apple regarding their openness. We never expect Apple to open the iOS platform the way Google has done with Android, but it’ll be a nice addition for developers to get a little more freedom. If this freedom will make its way to the iWatch is currently unknown. It isn’t unheard of for Apple to include third-party integration opportunities, even though it has usually come as a possibility for the second or third iteration of the product or service.
The main hurdle
As with phones, a smartwatch can’t do much without energy. Hardware engineers have for the past few years been struggling to find a solution to smartwatches’ battery consumption and battery capacity. Pebble managed to overcome this problem by using e-paper technology. Unlike a regular LCD display, which emits light, e-paper is designed to reflect light like ordinary paper, thus making it easier to read and giving it greater battery life.
The two biggest drawbacks of using e-paper technology are the display’s refresh rate and color saturation. The Pebble smartwatch incorporates a black and white screen, whereas the new Moto 360, from now Lenovo owned Motorola, will have a beautiful and colorful display.
Little has been said about the Moto 360, including battery life and performance. It’s been speculated that the black bar at the bottom is a solar panel in order to increase battery life. Though we won’t know for sure until Motorola reveals all the details.
We know Apple has been having a hard time figuring out how to manage the battery consumption on their devices and how to fit a big enough battery into them. There have been a few job openings for battery specialists at the Cupertino based company. Even though we can’t be sure they’re for the alleged smartwatch it won’t be surprising if they’re. It’s however, also fully possible that these job openings are “only” for the iPhone and directed towards its share of battery issues.
One way one could solve the battery issue is to know the user, for example knowing his or her habits. This would mean that the device could allocate battery power differently throughout the day. If the device knows that you’re not usually using it between 9am and 11am, there’s no reason for it to use power during that period of time, it could go into power saving mode. Google already know a lot about us, they know your calendar and they know where you are. They could use this information to distribute battery power differently; thus increase battery life greatly.
The interoperability between operating systems
The major companies have all taken completely different approaches to the interoperability between devices before. Will this change this time around? Will the iWatch be compatible with an Android phone? Will Google still support iOS devices?
Currently there’s no info on whether or not Android Wear will be able to pair to an iPhone, if history is anything to go by it should be possible, we should however, expect limited functionality and features. There’s also the possibility that Google’s new OS won’t be available for iPhone users at all, because Wear is simply a modified version of Android, and no Android device has ever played nicely with Apple’s phone and tablet OS.
One can argue back and forth on whether or not it could be a good move for Google to close its ecosystem a little more. On the one hand it’s a good thing, simply because Google can focus on making two Android devices work flawlessly together. On the other hand, Google is closing the door to a big audience by doing so. This is also the audience who is very well known for their willingness to pay good money for great experiences.
Apple will surely not open up its watch to other platforms. It’s not in Apple’s nature in doing so. Except for iTunes and Safari there’s few examples of Apple software ported over to other operating systems. Apple likes to keep everything within its own ecosystem. This way they can ensure that anything that leaves Cupertino Headquarters has the famous “it just works” factor. Apple is so dedicated to their own platforms that they do not “waste” time on others.
The introduction of Android Wear, the recent rumors about Apple’s iWatch and the latest sales numbers from Pebble all point to a bright future for smartwatches around the world. In a few years we could see smartwatches dominating our wrists. Apple will most likely introduce their version of a watch later this year; several companies have already announced that they’re bringing smartwatches to the market this summer. When engineers manages to overcome the battery hurdle, and manages a seamless integration with your smartphone we should see some really great accessories for your wrists.
Despite of everything, sometimes it seems that only technology enthusiasts are interested in the smartwatch. Unlike “regular” people, this is a group who knows what they want and how they want it. Is the general public really interested in wearable technology? Are they ready for the smartwatch? Will the regular Joe understand what this new type of device is, what it is for and will he be able to take full advantage of it? Finally, will he be willing to spend several hundred dollars on a little personal assistant?
These are all questions that have yet to be answered, if the trend is something to go by the answers will be here sooner rather than later.
The question will most likely be; which watch should you buy?