Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

WIMM launches platform for smart watches

Taiwan hardware maker Foxconn invests in start-up and manufacturers its Android-powered watch modules.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read
A WIMM watch in standby mode. Rafe Needleman/CNET

It looks like geek watches may be making a comeback. WIMM Labs is releasing its Android-powered platform for ultra-mobile, wearable computing, and in doing so joins Fossil's Meta Watch project in this emerging space.

WIMM has financial backing from Foxconn, the company that makes iPhones, but WIMM is a California start-up.

In the demo I saw, the small WIMM module, which will be shipping to developers shortly, could be snapped into a few different prototype watch bands. It has some interesting technological properties. For one thing, it's less bulky than those SPOT watches that Microsoft tried to foist on us. And the platform is somewhat open, based on a custom fork of the Android OS. (Standard Android doesn't support screens this small.)

Inside the module is a standard suite of radios and sensors: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, acceleration, GPS, and magnetometer. There's also a speaker and a buzzer. A health product like the Basis this isn't, but it does have exposed contacts on the back to communicate with accessory devices.

Powered up, weather app showing. Rafe Needleman/CNET

The rest of the hardware is more interesting. There's a version in a ceramic case that looks very sharp; plastic will also be available. The screen is a trick transflective unit. When the backlight is off, it becomes a gray-scale screen that's easily readable in normal light. To get into the UI, you fire up the interface (by holding your finger down on the capacitive screen), and it becomes a full-color, backlit display.

There are two processors in the WIMM. A low-power chip that just keeps the clock up to date, updates the watch's low-power display, and monitors the touch screen and wireless signals (barely); and a more robust Samsung ARM11 chip for the apps and the user interface. The WIMM should be good for about 30 hours of wearing before it needs a recharge. There's a micro-SD slot in its guts, for up to 32GB of storage.

I've never seen version 1.0 hardware this sophisticated from a start-up. Company spokesperson Tim Twerdahl says Foxconn gets the credit. It has 100 engineers involved in this project and is doing the manufacturing, including, he says, gearing up to produce the modules in big run-rates quickly.

WIMM will support the product licensees by running the apps platform for the watches. Users will be able to control their watches via a Web interface or a smartphone app.

We all have smartphones. Who needs a smart watch?
There's nothing a WIMM watch can do that a smartphone can't, except strap to your wrist and be ever-present. Twerdahl says in addition to standard watch functions, the devices can serve as fitness gear, as displays for sports equipment (like helmet cams), as news readers or calendar monitors, and as secondary displays for your phone's SMS and call notifications. "It's an open platform for personalized microexperiences," Twerdahl told me.

It sounds like fun to have an RSS reader, an SMS display, an appointment calendar, and other cool toys on your wrist, but I'm not sure WIMM has figured out how to make this product indispensable as a wristwatch.

The company's business, though, is to provide technology to partners, not sell the watches itself. While there are no deals yet signed to bring a WIMM watch to market, Twerdahl says the company is close to signing with a fashion watch company and a fitness brand.

Foxconn stands to make the most from WIMM, since it will be manufacturing the devices. It is interesting that Foxconn is gearing up to support this platform; the company is not known for funding Silicon Valley start-ups.

As I said, I'm not sure consumers will spring for a watch that has to be charged every day and that requires apps management. Maybe it works when connected to fitness sensors or as a secondary camera monitor, but the era of the wristwatch--even one that does what this can do--may be winding down.