Tech Speak: What’s in a Watch?
This week we are going to be looking at the growing popularity of a very specific type of tech peripheral while asking a fairly straightforward trifecta of questions. Namely: “What’s in a watch?” “What is it about so called —Smart-Watches— that has all 5 of the big name tech giants (Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola & Apple) scrambling to get a share of this previously unloved sector of the market?” and “What the heck are these ‘watches’ supposed to be able to do that smartphones can’t?”
So move over Rolex… We’re about to get techy all over your gearbox dawg!
What Happens when you Shove a Processor into the body of a Watch?
A little under a year ago Samsung released the “GEAR” its 2.6oz, 4Gig answer to a question which nobody seemed to be asking. And that question was: “How do we bring the features of a PC, a phone, a remote control, a watch, a camera and the innumerable trappings of digital pedometers, tachometers and heart rate monitors, (things generally associated with the consumer habits of either the morbidly obese, or conversely… The physically fit) together and cram them all into something which can be strapped onto your the wrist?”
To say that market analysts, tech writers and Samsung’s closest competitors were surprised by this development would be a bit of an understatement. As up till this point Samsung’s primary goal in the digital arms race seems to have been to beat the snot out of Apple’s minimalist sensibilities by seeing how large they could make a smartphone without having to call it a tablet. Tech aficionados and critics alike were quick to pan the Galaxy GEAR as a foolish attempt to pander to those with a raging hard-on for chunky “smart” devices who didn’t care about petty nuisances like financial hardship or battery life. (Not to mention the existence of hundreds upon hundreds of other less integrated devices, which could do each individual thing GEAR was supposed to be able to, at either a fraction of, or comparable cost.)
September and October rolled by with little fan fair and naysayers spent their afternoons hanging around their local coffee shops saying things like:
“Do you remember the Cassio CA-53W?”
“You mean the mid 90’s watch with the calculator built into it?”
“That’s the one… Never caught on did it?”
“Nah, can’t do much with a watch besides put an interval timer on it… and you know… alarms and stuff…”
“Yeah, serves Samsung right doesn’t it! Nobody wants to strap a watered down calculator to their wrist, let alone a smartphone. Can you imagine what it would be like getting a call on the can and fat fingering the camera button?”
“Gods! That’d be gross!”
“I know, right?”
And to some extent they ended up being right. Conflicting reports of 800 000 units in total sales vs. 800 000 units being shipped to retailers began to emerge. Research by Russell Holly over at geek.com, found that Best Buy retailers saw a 30% rate of product return for GEAR and consumers complained that the peripheral didn’t work well with the smartphones and tablets it was supposed to be an accessory to. Samsung has since done its best to address the inter-device compatibility and connectivity issues through a series of software updates and hardware tweaks, and have even gone so far as to drop the original asking prince.
Yet determining whether or not these tweaks, and the looming release of the Gear 2, have rectified all possible grounds for continuing consumer reticence is a bit of a problem; as Samsung has remained cagey about releasing actual sales numbers. For example, in his article “Samsung Ships more than half a million Galaxy Gear Smartwatches in Q1 2014,” tech writer Matthew Miller from The Mobile Gadgeteer relates that although Samsung may have shipped over 500 000 units to retailers in Q1 of 2014, he is hesitant to outright pat the tech giant on the back for having successfully cornered the market. Saying instead that “… there is definitely some demand for Samsung smartwatches…” and that “… it will be interesting to see if more consumers start picking [them] up.”
Miller appears to be on the pro-smartwatch side of the debate, however phrases like “some demand,” and “interesting to see” are hardly strong acclamations of this particular bundling of assorted bits of tech. But hey, they got us to come around on the whole tablet thing didn’t they? Bringing all the features of a.), b.) and c.) together in one convenient, simple to use, device and whatnot, right? So given enough time, and enough money dumped into R&… (hah! I can’t believe I almost wrote that). What I meant to say, is —with enough time and money being dumped into the marketing department, we’ll have to come around eventually…
To which I would respond, “I guess? Given enough time, further technological innovation, and a dramatic re-tooling of our ability to interact with the device in ways that no amount of fat-fingering ever could.”
Not the most direct of answers I know, but here’s the thing. By cramming what essentially amounts to a smartphone —that’s a little light on things like processing power and storage space— into the chassis of a watch; smartwatches are going to run into the very same difficulties that the original pioneers of wristwatches faced years ago when they sought to go about convincing the general public to trade in their handy dandy time keeping devices of the pocketable variety for those attached to little more than a limp leather strap.
A Brief History of Watches in Short
References to “Pocket Watches” first started to creep into the historical record in the mid to late 15th century and they remained in vogue until the early part of the 20th. What made the pocket watch such a novel invention was that it allowed you to carry a reasonably accurate indicator of time around with you in ways which simply hadn’t been possible in earlier eras. Sure, the ancients had a good thing going with the sundial, and the really ancient ancients could give you a reasonable estimate as to the date of the next equinox or solstice with their handy dandy megalithic architecture. But it wasn’t until the advent of the pocket watch, that the abstract concept of time, quite literally became something which you could hold in your hand. And you have to admit there is an implicit kind of confidence inherent to carrying around something which could be used to club someone or garrotte them given enough time and the right length of chain. (Or to smash the odd migratory beetle like one Orson Lannister… But I digress.)
Suffice to say, pocket watches were quite the handy things to have around and (no pun intended) they were very much a pocketable piece of convenient technology which stuck. Although that isn’t to say that they were the only game in town, but unfortunately for the enterprising bracelet makers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, gender roles got in the way. Watches which could be carried around in your pocket were considered manly and —like all so called “manly” things— were almost immediately subjected to large scale amounts of bejewelling, engraving, and novelty case making. (Because if there’s one thing that the upper class men of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries knew how to do, it was how to staple gold leafed bling onto pretty much everything.)
Though this was not for any lack of trying on the part of watchmakers, who being the stalwart innovators they were, started tacking their time pieces to wearable straps as early as the latter half of the 16th century.
It wasn’t until the advent of the First World War, when advances in factory mechanization and the increasing sophistication of mechanical fabrication technology, paved the way for making the component parts of a watch both smaller and appreciably cheeper, that the “Wrist Watch” found its place in the public sphere. And as morbid as it may sound, one of the reasons for this was that watches which could be worn on the wrist had the added benefit of saving soldiers the somewhat uncomfortable experience of having to feel through their friends pocket to find the time whilst said friend’s body parts lay strewn about in a 30 yard radius.
So if we are to take anything away from this brief stroll through the history of watch’s, it is that the wristwatch (much like its predecessor) became popular simply because it was a: cheap, easily replaceable, pragmatic, alternative to a longstanding upper class fashion accessory. Which isn’t as odd a reason as it might sound, because it didn’t do anything more “watchy” or with more “watchy-ness” than the watches which came before it. And to a certain extent the same holds true today. After all we’ve been dropping new bits of tech into watches since the late 1970’s and all this had led to, is digital watches getting more digital…
Despite our tendency towards adding more and more features into this most intricately mundane form of technology, it could be argued that watches (as in the timekeeping devices which can conveniently be carried on your wrist) reached their absolute zenith in terms of technological innovation the moment they could be sunk up with other time keeping devices (and with atomic clocks in particular).
In fact, you might say that on some level we are now living in a society which is “post-watch.” Or at the very least, a society in which the ubiquitousness of the wrist watch is fast giving way to the popularity of the innumerable pocketable digital devices —which, just so happen to have a time keeping application built into them as a standard feature. So why on earth are likes of LG, Motorola, Google and Apple spending billions to beat Samsung in a competition that amounts to little more than a shoving match over who can stuff the most shiny technological gewgaws and algorithms into the chassis of an old piece of tech?
Could it be to somehow resuscitate waining popularity of the wrist watch?
History Professor Alexis McCrossen, writing over at over at ideas.time.com, put it this way:
“… The wrist had a good run, but it simply cannot afford the privacy, security, mobility, or safety of the pocket, not to mention the carrying capacity. Unless we perfect a way of implanting all our apps in a chip in our brains, stowing our technology in our clothes remains the best choice for most of us. For that reason, the pocket continues its centuries-long reign. At lease until someone comes up with something better.”
And no matter how much simmering sex appeal, or pseudo celebrity endorsement the marketing departments of these tech giants inject into the add campaigns for their respective wrist bound wonders, the unavoidable restrictions of the peripherals watch-like form are inherently limiting to the types of things which the smart watch will be able to do. If in fact it (or they) can claim that their ‘watch’ will be able to do anything “better” than the smartphone it is intended to be linked with?
So if you ever find yourself standing in front of a particularly sleek looking glass case whilst suffering from a bad case itchy palms and a dry mouth; trembling at the thought of having this latest, sleekest, sexiest addition to your smartphones family of accessories. Remember to ask yourself: “does this incarnation of raw technological-consumer-crack do anything better than the phone which is currently cutting into your trembling hand?” and if so; “does the fact that it is somewhat cheaper than the smartphone which you’ve already forked out hundred for, balance out the reality that this latest focus of your tech crazed desires, isn’t all that cheap to begin with?
Then maybe this is one bit of strappable kit best left on the shelf…
* Just a quick note to all of our tech fans out there, we’ve been playing around with our release schedule a bit and from now on all of our technology related content will be slated to appear on Mondays. While music related news will be making the transition to Tuesdays in lieu of el swapperino… 🙂
— Trublue Editorial Staff