The Social Smart Watch: A Timely Idea

Wednesday Oct 3rd 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Forget the Facebook phone. Facebook needs a watch. So does Google and Twitter.

The wrist is a great place to lash information -- especially real-time, ever changing information you care about.

Unfortunately, the wristwatch has fallen out of favor along with the rise of the smartphone.

“Smart watches” exist, but are designed for market failure. The problem is that these watches focus on the desires of a tiny minority of geeks, rather than the general public’s obsession with social networking.

Rise and Fall of the Wristwatch

Wristwatches for men came into vogue in the years following World War I. Soldiers and sailors in that war switched from pocket watches to wristwatches for expediency in battle.

The wrist was a good place to keep important, changing information. It gave soldiers and sailors instant information without having to grope for something inside a pocket every time they wanted an update.

Some returning military men continued to wear them after the war. In the early 1920s, pocket watches became a gadget for “wet blankets” and wristwatches became the “cat’s pajamas” for “big sixes.” (Authentic ’20s-era slang courtesy of this site.)

Soon enough, wristwatches became popular for both men and women and, eventually thanks to Mickey Mouse, even children.

By the ’40s and ’50s and straight on through the ’90s, it became unprofessional and inappropriate to not wear a watch. Wristwatches symbolized responsibility, professionalism and productivity.

But when everybody started carrying smartphones in recent years, young people never acquired the habit of wearing a wristwatch. And many people who had worn one all their adult lives stopped doing so.

Why a Watch?

The wrist was always a great place for frequently-checked information. Its location on the wrist puts it out of the way, but also quickly available.

The telling of time was the first application for wrist-based information because that’s the information available 90 years ago, and time was also the information that everybody obsessed over back then. Without Google Calendar and smartphone alerts, checking your watch was the only way to be on time for appointments.

Today, we have a lot more information to choose from. But the reason I believe smart watches haven’t taken off is because manufacturers are focusing on the wrong information and, more importantly, the wrong demographic.

Sony’s $150 SmartWatch, for example, hit earlier this year and landed with a thud. And for good reason.

First, it’s way too big to be worn in any kind of business setting. It rises above the surface of the wrist by a third of an inch, and has blocky edges. Second, it can’t be read in sunlight. And third, it tries too hard to do too much, complete with multi-page apps and some remote control of Android phones.

The bottom line is that Sony’s design choices narrowed the possible number of people who could even consider it to a tiny, one-digit percentage of the larger potential market. Obviously, it never had the remotest chance of succeeding in the market, nor do any others like it.

With today’s current technical limitations, watch makers need to stop trying to do everything, and instead focus on doing one thing really well: status updates from social networks.

Why Watches Should Be Social

Wristwatches should be windows into our social networking streams for the same reason that they used to tell the time.

If you stand back and observe people objectively, you’ll notice that a great number of them constantly check Facebook or other social networks.

In other words, people obsessively check their social streams the same way they obsessively checked the time during the 20th Century.

It’s the ever-changing information that we frequently check on all day, and which connects our lives with other people.

Social smart watches should connect to our phones via Bluetooth, then to the Internet via the phones’ mobile broadband or WiFi connections. (All major phones, not just gigantic Samsung phones.) They should be thin, professional looking and readable in direct sunlight. And they should deliver as much information as these constraints will allow.

If that means nothing but minimal text, that’s better than a giant, clunky limited watch that does everything but for hardly anybody.

Rather than replicating many of the functions of smartphones with watch apps, as the Sony and other similar watches do, watches should simply offer up social streams. If users want weather, news, calendar alerts and so on, they can subscribe to these services on their social networking streams and have them come in along with social content.

Here’s how these might work:

The Facebook Watch

Facebook’s account settings menu has a “Notifications” page where you can decide what kind Facebook events trigger a message to your email address. For example, you can choose to be notified if someone pokes, tags or friends you. There are dozens of options.

Facebook should add a second row to include notifications to your Facebook Watch.

It could display the most recent message with a tap, and enable you to swipe back and forward to see messages. Double-tapping might toggle a mode in which incoming messages are displayed without touching.

The Google+ Watch

Google is in the news this week for patenting an augmented reality wristwatch idea -- a kind of wristwatch version of Google’s Project Glass.

That idea is years away from being manufacturable. However, Google could make a Google+ wristwatch much sooner, and iteratively evolve it into their magic, patented super-watch.

The Google+ wristwatch would work much like Facebook’s -- based on notifications. It could notify you of Hangout invitations (in five years a more advanced version might let you do the hangout right on the watch like Dick Tracy), plus-mentions, and the incoming content by the circles of your choice.

The Google+ Watch could also notify you of Gmail messages and, better yet, incoming Google Alerts.

The Twitter Watch

The Twitter Watch would be by far the easiest and cheapest to implement because Twitter was designed from the beginning for shortness and mobility.

The Twitter Watch could work like the Trickle app currently available for iOS. A double-tap might toggle on and off the display mode. When on, recent tweets would display for about five seconds, then slide away to reveal the next tweet.

It could function a bit like Osfoora. By taping once on a tweet that links to a story or post, you could be given the options to save it to email, Instapaper or to retweet it.

Why the Social Smart Watch’s Time Has Come

Many revolutionary ideas come about when two mundane things are combined. The wristwatch itself was a simple combination of the pocket watch and a bracelet. The Twitter idea came about as a mash-up of blogging and texting.

The smartphone emerged conceptually as a combination of cellular phone and electronic pocket organizer.

If you ask people if they want a social networking smart watch, as I have done, they will say no.

People also told me years ago they didn’t want social networking, touch tablets or music in their smartphones when these ideas were newish.

The truth is that most people don’t want anything different when you’re merely describing something new. People won’t get it until they try it.

I think the social smart watch idea is one of those things. Once people see elegant watches constantly displaying social updates, millions of people are going to want them.

And there’s a simple reason for that. People obsessively check social networks all day, every day. By putting that information on the wrist, it becomes easier, faster and more convenient.

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