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Building an iWristwatch: What smart watches need next

If smart watches are the gadgets of the future, they need to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

From left: iPod Nano watch, Swatch Microsoft/MSN watch, Fossil Wrist PDA, Sony SmartWatch.
Sarah Tew/CNET

My watch is an iPod Nano. It's not perfect. In fact, there are many ways I'd like it to be better. But, it works. It also looks cool.

Those are two seemingly small details that are in fact quite major when considering a smart watch these days. "Working" is a matter of opinion and design in some cases, but the point is that the iPod Nano-as-a-watch does exactly what you think it does, and it does it well. So far, that can't be said for Sony's SmartWatch, a confusing remote for Android phones that ends up doing less than you expect it to, yet somehow is hard to even work in that limited capacity. I had a chance to try one out here at CNET, and was surprised at how Sony's solution was good-looking, but a complete slave requiring Bluetooth and an Android phone to get anything done -- even tell the time. That's a problem. A good watch can't mess that part up.

Looking cool is subjective. It's also critical for a watch, a piece of fashion and jewelry for many more than any object of function. Your phone can tell the time. A watch, well...a watch is style. Perhaps it's ergonomically friendly, but it's all about what you'd like to see on your wrist as a fantasy. Big watch face? Crazy glow buttons? Subtle geekery? Colors to match your outfit? These are legitimate considerations for watches.

My Nano catches eyes, and most don't even know it's a watch (the last time I went into a Fossil store, the employees complimented me on it). The Hex Nano watchband is minimal and attractive, and it works for me. The ability to swap bands and pick one of 18 watch faces adds up to flexibility and value.

However, this is what it needs next. In fact, to some degree, this is what I think all Smart Watches of the Future need next. Pebble, I'm Watch, I'm looking at you. Swap in "Android" for "iOS" and the idea still follows.

The Nano's exposed 30-pin connector. Sarah Tew

Water resistance
Any smart watch needs to be worry-free. That's the appeal of a wrist-worn device in the first place. I can get away with removing my Nano from my wrist whenever I wash my hands or take a shower, but it's a dangerous game. The Nano, as currently stands, isn't built for anything more than basic sweat resistance; the 30-pin port opening is exposed on one side, and the headphone jack is open as well. More-recent smart watch concepts like Sony's and the Pebble are incorporating better water resistance. With so many connection options available wirelessly -- and wireless induction charging -- there's less of an excuse not to make the whole product airtight.

Sony's Smart Watch gets the idea of remote connectivity right, in theory. Sarah Tew/CNET

Remote support for iOS, and mini-apps
I want the Nano, at a bare minimum, to be a virtual remote for all my relevant apps. It doesn't need to be extensive, but I do expect some level of connectivity.

In order to listen to music on a Nano watch, I have to sync music onto my Nano...the old-fashioned way, with a 30-pin cable. That works fine for most basic purposes, but it would make simple sense for the Nano to also be able to connect to an iOS device via Bluetooth to play music or podcasts stored there.

I remember those old Microsoft SPOT watches, devices that had terribly short battery life and a necessary pay subscription service for bare-bones wirelessly delivered information. Still, the idea of wirelessly delivered weather, messages, or other info is something I'd love to have on my watch, if it didn't cost me money or excessive battery drain.

The no-longer-functioning Swatch smart watch used to get over-the-air information from MSN. Sarah Tew

Obvious choices for remote mini-apps include iTunes, Maps, calendar, contacts, and messaging, but app developers could dream up other uses, too. A movie showtimes app? Restaurant reviews on your wrist? Leave it to Apple's army of dedicated iOS app developers, and some good ideas are bound to turn up in the ecosystem if the next version of the Nano is included in the next iOS SDK.

Connect to the iTunes Store
For direct download of purchased songs or iTunes Cloud music on the go, or -- even more importantly -- for podcast downloads, it would be convenient to have direct iTunes access. It could lead to splintering of music collections across devices, but with the ability to redownload music and the advent of iTunes Match, it makes more sense than before.

Nike FuelBand
The Nike FuelBand: The next level of fitness tech. Sarah Tew/CNET

Be an even better fitness device
The iPod Nano already has Nike+ and a pedometer built in, and it's a pretty good fitness peripheral as is. Still, the bar's being raised. Wearable bandlike tech like the Nike FuelBand may lack an ability to play music, but the sleek and more sweat-resistant design is changing the concept of a wearable fitness watch. With better iOS app support for fitness programs already on the iPhone and iPod Touch, the next Nano could be more versatile. Can it be sleeker in its design, too, while still providing iOS connectivity?

Add a Watch Face store
The Nano has a stylistic edge on the Sony SmartWatch, and many other smart watches, with its 18 built-in watch faces. For the love of all that's good, why not offer the opportunity to buy more? Branded sports watch faces, superhero watches, designer faces, even promotional freebies...this seems like an obvious decision, especially if the Nano continues down the path as a watch-type gadget.

I like having a headphone jack and real FM radio on the Nano. Don't change that. Sarah Tew/CNET

Add Bluetooth, but still keep the headphone jack
Bluetooth is essential for phone pairing and remote connections, but Bluetooth's also a battery-killer. Bluetooth 4.0 might be able to help in that regard, but I tend to keep my Bluetooth turned off and only pair when I need it. An active connection between watch and phone is one more wireless drain on my phone and my watch, both of which I rely on over the course of a day. Also -- needless to say -- a headphone jack ensures you'll be able to plug in whichever headphones you'd like.

Pebble's smart watch: Is e-ink the answer? Pebble Technology

Better battery life
This almost goes without saying. Yet, bad battery life helped kill the last generation of "smart watches" more than anything else. The iPod Nano-as-watch lasts me anywhere from three days to a week depending on how I'm using it. More-efficient batteries, larger batteries, or screens like e-ink (adopted by the Pebble watch) could help. I don't think removable batteries are the answer.

Don't give up being a stand-alone product; don't rely on remotes and wireless!
Devices like the Sony SmartWatch show the potential of a watch as a remote; show texts on your wrist, check the weather, and accept phone calls while your phone's in your pocket. Sony's watch also shows off some unfortunate limitations: It can't do very much at all when it's not actively paired with an Android phone. It can't store music, it can't run apps, and it even needs to pair with a phone to initially tell the time.

I appreciate that the Nano has its own interface, its own settings. I love that it has a hardwired, real FM radio (which needs my headphones to act as an antenna). I'd prefer that it add remote functions as well, but not at the expense of being an independently functioning product. The Nano is the future of the Shuffle, and could be a very versatile device in another year. It needs to be an offline watch as much as an online one.

Fossil's Palm wristwatch. RIP. Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm reminded of another old early smart watch: the Fossil-Palm Wrist PDA. It boldly attempted to be a wearable Palm. Its limited storage and reliance on a pull-out micro-stylus kept in the buckle certainly didn't help its cause. However, it didn't need to pair with some other gadget to work. Neither did the Spot Watch. Neither does the Nano.

Working as a remote is one thing, but the next Nano watch I put on my wrist (and any other future smart watch) can't just be a remote. It needs to be more. A good smart watch needs to be its own gadget. No one wants to lay down $150 for a glorified pairing device. I hope smart watch makers keep that in mind.