Dick Tracey introduced the first wireless phone-watch back in 1946. By the time the comic strip detective hit the silver screen in 1964, his watch, by then quite iconic, even boasted video call capabilities.
True, Tracey’s watch could not handle Twitter feeds, but at least it was stand-alone. Tracey used his watch as an actual phone, independent of any other device. This is not the case with today’s smartwatches. Fast-forward to 2013. Numerous smartwatches are finally available. But, while they may seem more advanced on the surface, they actually fall short of Tracey’s 67 year-old device.
Today’s devices are essentially sophisticated smartphone accessories. They are designed to be paired via Bluetooth with iPhones or Android phones. With the exception of some experimental devices (such as Neptune Pine and Omate TrueSmart which are not commercially available), none of today’s smartwatches have stand-alone functionality. This is true of the pioneering Pebble, as well as the newer Samsung Galaxy Gear, Qualcomm Toq, Sony SmartWatch, Nike+ Sportwatch, and others.
True, some users certainly appreciate the ability to glance at a watch instead of having to pull a phone out of their pocket for notifications and text messages. But how ‘smart’ is a watch that is merely an extension of a phone?
It doesn’t stop at smartwatches, either. Even seemingly more innovative wearable devices like Google Glass are largely useless without being paired with a smartphone. Google Glass, stripped of Internet connectivity, GPS capabilities or the ability to make calls, is little more than a funny-looking, wearable camera.
Wearable devices of the future must offer more; they must become truly independent devices in order to realize their full potential.
This can be done by embedding a 3G/LTE chipset and RF frontend in each device. The good news is that, technically, these components can be added today quite easily. The bad news is that adding such components would also add three complicating factors to this new breed.
First, it significantly increases the device size. While users are getting comfortable with larger phones, they do not want to wear a brick on their wrist. Indeed, for wearable devices to sell beyond early adopters, device aesthetics must be improved.
Luckily, chips are getting smaller by the day. It seems that with some time and design creativity, this obstacle will be overcome.
Second, adding Internet and cellular connectivity will increase the device price by as much as $50-100. This is significant in a saturated market that demands competitive pricing. While this may not seem like such a high premium for a $400 watch, it almost doubles the price of lower-end smartwatches like Pebble (sold for $150).
The solution may lie in limiting the wireless technologies supported. For example, manufacturers could consider enabling LTE connectivity only, which can save up to 50 percent of the cost of supporting multiple wireless bands.
Down the line, if watches replace phones as the primary means of communications altogether, price might be less of an issue. However, if, as part of the IoE (Internet of Everything) vision, the primary phone is replaced by an ecosystem of several independent wearable devices, price certainly will remain an issue.
The final obstacle, battery life, may be the trickiest one to overcome. Short battery life is already the biggest disadvantage of today’s wearable devices. Current devices drain the battery of both the cell phone and the watch. A single charge of the Samsung Galaxy Gear’s 315mAh button battery, for instance, provides only 25 hours of normal usage. Sony’s Smart Watch can go two days between charges. The Bluetooth and color screen sap the battery fast. Add LTE connectivity to the mix, start making calls, and you’ll be charging your battery every hour.
Some chipmakers are working around the clock to improve chipset energy efficiency, but for these small watches to deliver a full cellular experience, more headway will have to be made on both the chipset and battery side.
While all three technical challenges will surely be met, there is a business complication, too. Namely, business models have not yet been created to support this new product category.
Today’s smartwatches, paired with smartphones, simply tap into an existing data plan. However, if you cut the phone out of the equation and multiple devices start using the cellular network, how do you provision it? Will there be a SIM card (also a technical complication)? Will these devices sell in retail stores or through carriers? What’s the service strategy? Do you pay a monthly fee? Is it part of the device cost?
Companies will take various approaches to marketing their products. IT giant Google will push for a different strategy for selling its watch than sports gear maker Nike, chipmaker Qualcomm, phone maker Samsung, or carrier Verizon.
The point is that business models (whatever they are) will certainly be developed because there is a convergence of interests by all parties. Carriers, device makers, even fashion brands like Nike (others will surely follow suit) are all intent on this new product category succeeding.
However, in order for this category to truly succeed, device makers must be compelled to innovate and roll out truly “smart” independent devices.
Whether or not they make it to the market in 2014/15, smarter watches are definitely coming. And, when fully-independent smartwatches are available, Dick Tracey will finally be left in the dust.
By Eran Eshed