Watch What Happens

on February 25, 2014

One of the hottest topics in personal technology these days is the smart watch, one of several new categories of smart wearable devices. The idea with a smart watch is to offer tidbits of “glanceable” information and various types of notifications within a small, lightweight form that people are already accustomed to wearing on their body.

Conceptually, a wrist-worn computing device is an intriguing idea that carries with it not only the back to the future visions of a Dick Tracy-style communications device, but the promise of easy access to information and—thanks to the potential of integrating various sensors—the introduction of new data types that translate characteristics of both the physical world and our own bodies into the digital realm. If you really think about it, that’s pretty heady stuff.

Unfortunately, the reality of first generation smart watches has fallen fall short of this ideal. Instead, what we’ve seen is a number of very techy-looking products that tend to offer simple duplications of what our smartphones already do: notifications that someone is calling, displays of texts and social media updates, playing back music, etc. While some of those capabilities are certainly OK, we haven’t seen anywhere near enough applications and capabilities that take advantage of the smart watch form factor and justify the high price points. Most of the existing smart watches are essentially very expensive smartphone accessories—hence their limited appeal to date.

But for all the challenges and debates about smart watches, there’s one topic that has generated a completely unnecessary amount of discussion: smart watch operating systems. So, let me be clear, a smart watch OS does not matter.[pullquote]For all the challenges and debates about smart watches, there’s one topic that has generated a completely unnecessary amount of discussion: smart watch operating systems. So, let me be clear, a smart watch OS does not matter.”[/pullquote]

Remember, a smart watch is not a smart phone (well, except for a few companies trying to essentially put an entire smart watch into a wrist-worn form factor—given all the horrendous battery life tradeoffs that entails, all I can say is good luck to that…). The need to run the same OS as a smartphone, therefore, is completely unnecessary. An OS essentially provides a means to run compatible applications and a method for interacting with a device, and neither of these two key points translates between a smartphone and a smart watch. Most smart watches have screens that are less than 2” diagonally and, even if you could squeeze the same resolution from a smartphone into that tiny size, you wouldn’t be able to read it or interact with it as you can on smartphone display. In addition, the hardware platform that’s running inside a smart watch or other wearable is likely to be very different from that found inside a smartphone. So, the concept of OS and application compatibility on a smart watch has no meaning or value. Plus, smart watches are designed to be glanceable devices that you can quickly view from a distance. Bottom line is that applications and their interactions have to be completely rethought for smart watches and that can just as easily be done on a “new OS” (as long as there are reasonable development tools for the platform) as an existing one.

As a result, Samsung’s decision to move its second generation Galaxy Gear 2 smart watch to Tizen (instead of Android) is actually a good thing because it both breaks the inevitable functionality duplication that reformatted Android apps would have, and it helps position Tizen as a viable new alternative in the wearables area. But it’s also not about building up a different set of competing OS’s. Does anybody really know or care what OS is running on the popular Pebble line of smart watches? (For the record, it runs its own Pebble OS, now up to version 2.0.) No, because the key point is that Pebble has created a variety of developments tools that allow programmers to create interesting applications specifically targeted for smart watches. Similarly, I would not be the least bit surprised to see an Apple iWatch running something other than “traditional” iOS.

What does and will matter about smart watches (and all wearables, for that matter) is the ability to communicate with smartphones, tablets and even PCs of all operating systems and share information back and forth between them. The industry needs to leverage and, in the case of sensor-generated information, develop standard data types and means of communicating these data types across all platforms if we really want to see the smart watch industry survive past its current “fad-ish” stage. The open-source AllJoyn initiative started by Qualcomm looks to be an intriguing step in that direction and I’ll be very curious to “watch” where it goes.