The Smartwatch Revolution Isn't Waiting

Wednesday Jun 26th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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The leading tech companies are maneuvering for a titanic battle to win market share in the upcoming battle for smartwatch buyers.

In a recent Google infomercial (also known as the movie The Internship), the main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, lose their jobs as wristwatch salesmen because “everything is computerized now.” In desperation, they do the only logical thing, which is to try out for Google internships.

That idea was as unlikely to succeed as it was unrealistic. (The only less realistic thing about the movie was its depiction of a Google phone tech support help line.)

Instead, our bumbling heroes should have stuck it out in the wristwatch racket, because watches are about to come back in a major way.

And, yes, everything is computerized now.

But the wristwatch is doomed, right? After all, nobody wears watches anymore.

Who in their right mind would sell a wristwatch that connects to the Internet, providing the user with notifications, incoming chat and social messages and possibly runs apps?

Nobody, really, except for Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Sony, Samsung, LG and at least a dozen international startups.

Smartwatches Getting Smarter, But Silicon Valley Is Late!

The conventional impulse has been for everyone to wait for rumored or announced smartwatches from the tech giants. Yes, the rumors and accompanying factoids (such as patents) are plausible.

Intel’s CTO Justin Rattner said this week that Intel is working on “novel display devices” that live on your wristand feed you smartphone information. Rumors persist that Intel could be working with Apple on their rumored iWatch.

Google’s Android group is reportedly working on a smartwatch, presumably one that takes advantage of service infrastructure from the company’s Glass project.

Samsung executive VP Lee Young Hee confirmed in March that the company is “working very hard” to produce a smartwatch.

The Korea Times reported in March that tech giant LG is also working on a smartwatch, as well as a competitor to Google Glass.

Another report emerging in April says that former Microsoft Xbox and Kinect team members had already built a prototype Microsoft smartwatchthat connects to the company’s Surface tablet.

If the idea of a Microsoft smartwatch sounds unlikely, you should know that Microsoft pioneered the concept back in the 1990s. I personally owned a Timex Datalink watch, co-developed by Microsoft, which magically synchronized with a PC when you held it up to the screen and ran the sync app. Flashing on-screen lights transmitted the data.

So, yes, it appears likely that pretty much every major company that makes consumer electronics is working furiously on the development of a smartwatch. But the world isn’t waiting. Sony doesn’t just have a rumored or announced smartwatch, they’ve already shipped one, open-sourced it and announced a second version.

The first Sony Smartwatch gained a few fans, but lacked key features and had a limiting software user interface. Surprisingly, Sony announced an Open SmartWatch project last week that invites developers to create and flash their own firmware for the Sony SmartWatch.

Yesterday, Sony announce a new, second version of the watch. The SmartWatch 2 is similar to its previous version, but adds NFC support for pairing to an Android smartphone, a higher resolution screen that looks better in sunlight, better user interface, more apps, water resistance and better battery life. The SmartWatch 2 is scheduled to ship in September and no price has been announced.

One of the most successful smartwatches to date is a Kickstarter-funded product called the Pebble Smartwatch. Featuring an e-Paper display, the watch excels at longish battery life and sunlight readability. It also has an open SDK for third-party app development. Just this week, Pebble announced new support for the Google Hangouts app. And it connects to both iPhones and Android.

Another watch called the Kreyos Meteor Smartwatchrelays voice to the smartphone its paired with. For example, you can interact with Siri via the watch on an iPhone. You can also hold your calls via the watch like it was a speakerphone lashed to your arm. It also responds to gestures using an internal gyroscope. By waving your hand around while wearing it, you can answer the phone, or change music. Developers will have access to the gesture API, and add custom-built gestures. The Kreyos was crowdfunded on Indegogo and expected to start shipping to early backers by November.

Another interesting watch is the Sonostar Smartwatch, which uses a black-and-white e-Ink display for high readability in sunlight. The Sonostar is designed to connect to both iPhone and Android phones to control the communication and music happening on the phone.

A crowdsourced watch called the Boddie Smartwatch comes from a Polish startup called Rearden Technology. It responds to motion control, and can even control the camera on a smartphone. A security feature enables it to be remotely locked if it’s lost or stolen. The developers claim it uses a fraction of the power of the Pebble Smartwatch. The Boddie probably won’t ship for another year or so at the earliest.

Many of the crowd-funded smartwatches are similar in functionality, purpose and support. But the EmoPulse Smartwatch appears to be the most different from the pack. For starters, the Linux-based EmoPulse comes in a flexible-screen, wrap-around formfactor that combines the wristband and clock face into the same object. The screen is closer in size to a small smartphone than a large wristwatch. It can be used to either connect to a smartphone, or it can be used as a stand-alone gadget.

The EmoPulse also seems to have a lot of electronics, including three cameras -- one for “face tracking,” another for taking HD pictures and video and a third for scanning documents -- sensors that enable it to monitor your sleep and other health indicators. It has up to 256 GB of storage, plus a SIM card slot, a USB 3.0 port and even a Thunderbolt port and a SIM card slot for the phone function.

If the EmoPulse takes the maximum approach, a watch called the Martian Smartwatch takes a minimal approach. The top two-thirds of the watch is actually an analog watch with physically moving hands and everything. Within the bottom third is a very small rectangular screen that can display a few characters, telling you who’s calling or texting and giving a little more cryptic information.

The Martian has no touchscreen, but physical, traditional buttons on the sides of the watch. The best thing about it is that it can be used as a speakerphone and voice-command interface. Unlike most of the devices in this column, the Martian is shipping now and for $249.

A Chinese watch called the GEAK Smartwatch is essentially a counterfeit Sony SmartWatch from a hardware design perspective. It has a touch screen and pairs with a nearby phone. Additionally, the GEAK supports WiFi and is supposed to have a fast processor clocked at 1 GHz. It’s supposed to ship in July in China and cost $325.

A crowdfunded effort called the Androidly Smartwatch, developed in the UK, is supposed to run apps like any Android phone can, directly on the watch’s two-inch 320x240 screen. It’s basically a small Android phone that you wear on your wrist. It’s small for a phone but huge for a watch.

Another watch called the AGENT Smartwatch recently emerged on Kickstarter. The waterproof, smartphone-connecting watch uses e-Ink and performs all the expected tasks of displaying texts, social messages and caller ID information. The developers claim long battery life and wireless charging.

Other watches to keep an eye on include the Vachen Smartwatch, I’m Watch Smartwatch, Metawatch Smartwatch and Cookoo Smartwatch.

If you were thinking that the smartphone revolution isn’t going to happen, this column should change your opinion. The forms, features and functions of these watches are powerful, useful and varied.

And yes, when the consumer electronics giants finally jump in with their offerings, and start pouring millions of dollars into marketing and advertising, this category is going to get very real starting this year’s holiday season.

So if you’re a watch salesman, you might want to keep your job.

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