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The smartwatch that'll be worth the wait

The smartwatches announced this week are interesting but fatally flawed, says TechRepublic's Jason Hiner. The device that ultimately captures the market will excel at three things.

A much more functional smartwatch would be something closer in size and shape to the Nike Fuelband, but maybe slightly wider and with a more powerful OLED display.
Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the timeless principles of the technology industry is that if your product has to rely on users to do a lot of configuration, then it's doomed to failure. Most will spend very little time doing it. That's why out-of-the-box experience matters. That's why default settings matter. And, that's why the best products are "as simple as possible, but not simpler." (Thank you, Mr. Einstein.)

This principle is important to remember as you think about smartwatches.

If you look at the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Qualcomm Toq -- each announced on Wednesday -- they both get it wrong by trying to graft too much smartphone functionality onto a watch. They overthink it.

There's a great scene in the movie "City Slickers" where these three fish-out-of-water New Yorkers are on horseback herding cattle all afternoon. Billy Crystal's character uses the time to explain to Daniel Stern's character how to record something on his VCR. Stern doesn't get it so Crystal patiently tries to break it down for him (unsuccessfully). Finally, Bruno Kirby breaks in and yells, "He doesn't get it! He'll never get it! It's been four hours. The cows can tape something by now."

I'd expect that kind of reaction if you strapped the Galaxy Gear or the Toq on the wrist of a random New Yorker today and tried to explain how to pair it with a smartphone and set it up so that it can do something useful for them. Most of them wouldn't get it or they'd ask why on earth they would want it.

The winning move for a smartwatch is far simpler.

It does not need a full touchscreen that mimics a smartphone. If you have to constantly touch and flip and navigate on a smaller version of a smartphone screen (see this tortured video of a Samsung rep demonstrating the Galaxy Gear) then you're going to quickly get frustrated and just whip out your smartphone.

Very few people are going to want to wear a big square screen on their wrists -- even those of us who have ogled Dick Tracy's legendary watch for years. It's just not practical or necessary. A much more functional smartwatch would be something closer in size and shape to the Nike Fuelband, but maybe slightly wider and with a more powerful OLED display. That would provide lots of room to iterate and innovate on style to make fashion accessories as well.

Functionally, this smartwatch would pair with a smartphone by simply tapping the two together and confirming (the Galaxy Gear gets that part right) and then it will mostly just work auto-magically.

It shouldn't try to foist a dumbed-down smartphone experience into the watch. It doesn't need a camera. And it doesn't have to be another phone interface. (A Bluetooth headset does that much better.) You don't need to send messages from it.

The ideal smartwatch will focus on three things it can do uniquely do well:

  1. Notification alerter
  2. Health tracker
  3. Security device

The big win for a smartwatch is notifications, and there's already consensus building around that in the tech community. We all look at our smartphones too much and it is disruptive, even rude in social settings. The smartwatch that does notifications right will win, because we all have times when we miss a text message or a call or a meeting notice because the smartphone is out of sight or silenced.

However, the goal should not be focused on acting on the notifications from the smartwatch itself. It should be to alert and preview: important messages, breaking news in your interest areas, key social-media triggers, upcoming meetings, sports scores for your teams, traffic alerts, flight status, and other details based on what's important to you. Then, once you've been alerted by the watch, you can use your smartphone or computer to act on the information as needed and when appropriate.

From an alerts standpoint, the gold standard here is Android notifications and Google Now. Android notifications have gotten very smart and granular, and Google Now has taken it to the next level by automatically generating notifications for things that are important to you, based on its big-data understanding of you. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that. But when many users see the value they get out of a service like Google Now that can anticipate your needs and preferences and save you from having to mess with settings and configurations, they will be keen to make the tradeoff.

Google Now once alerted me that I needed to leave in five minutes to make a meeting at another location, based on current traffic conditions. Luckily, I had my phone open to see it and so I acted on it. Imagine if that kind of alert could quietly vibrate my smartwatch and pop up that information and then I could politely excuse myself from the meeting I was in so that I wasn't late for my next meeting. That's a killer feature.

This isn't to say that Apple couldn't do something similar powered by iOS, but it's got a lot of catching up to do and it's likely going to need to partner with service providers like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others to compete with Android's data smarts.

The ideal smartwatch will also be a health tracker or "quantified self" device (the hot new term for these things). It will track your steps and activity level, display status on it, and feed all of the data to back-end services for you to analyze over time. Fitbit is the champ right now.

But, the real win here will be for the health tracker that can create an ecosystem. Instead of just being an isolated pedometer, it will be able to use NFC or Bluetooth to interface with treadmills, ellipticals, and other exercise machines so that it can also ingest their data as you exercise. This is a longer-term play that will require the backing of a big industry player, and that's where Apple has an advantage and an opportunity because it's done this kind of thing before with the accessory ecosystem for iPod and it's trying to do it again with its iOS in the Car initiative.  

The other big opportunity for a smartwatch is to become a security device. This will have extra value for professionals and for the enterprise. In this scenario, the smartwatch can be a two-factor authentication token, where you have to both enter a password and have your smartwatch nearby detected by a proximity sensor via NFC or Bluetooth (replacing today's smartcards and USB tokens).

It could also be keyed or activated as an access badge that you can use to enter restricted buildings or areas in corporate buildings (replacing the keyed badges that many of us have to carry). And, it could be activated as a key fob for keyless entry in various types of locking systems, if the security industry can devise a secure way to transfer this capability to third-party devices like smartwatches. Clearly, this too would benefit from a two-factor system such as pairing the fob with a pin or a fingerprint or (eventually) facial recognition.

Again, the interface on the smartwatch itself should be simple in the extreme. It doesn't need a huge screen. It could be 0.5 to 0.75 inches tall and 2 inches long, again similar to the size of the Nike Fuelband display but with a bright OLED screen. It should still be a touch screen, but with simple controls. For example, swipe back and forth to flip through alerts, swipe down to dismiss them, tap on the alert to get more information, and swipe up as the back button. You get the idea.

Nearly all of this is possible today with existing technologies. But it wouldn't be nearly as expensive as the $300 Galaxy Gear or Toq, since it wouldn't need such a large and expensive screen or a camera or other pointless add-ons. The price point for a smartwatch should be $100 to $200 to make it a mass-market device. Make no mistake, it's a smartphone accessory.

That's the smartwatch I'm waiting for.

This story originally appeared as "The smartwatch worth waiting for" on ZDNet.