Watch What Happens

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.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

51 thoughts on “Watch What Happens”

      1. Call them Shirley, then. My point is few people wear anything on the wrist. Perhaps you should stop to consider why.

        1. It’s fairly simple why many people wear nothing on their wrist today.

          1. People no longer need a dedicated device on their wrist to tell the time.
          2. Many people do not wear bracelets as fashion accessories.

          You’re making a couple mistakes. First, assuming the primary function of a ‘smart wrist device’ will be telling the time. It will not be. Second, assuming people don’t want to wear something on their wrist. That’s not the case, if it’s useful and makes a few key jobs-to-be-done an order of magnitude easier (and it’s gorgeous), many people will indeed choose to wear something on their wrist.

          1. Perhaps were are both making assumptions. Perhaps you are assuming that you know what functions will compel a consumer — I think that was the focus of this article — to put a device on the wrist.

          2. Of course I don’t know specifically what functions may or may not be included on a wrist device, and I don’t know the exact form factor, but it’s fairly easy to identify a set of jobs-to-be-done that could be made an order of magnitude easier by such a device, and that does present a compelling use case.

            Just as it was obvious in 2007 how successful the iPhone would be (and the iPad in 2010) it seems obvious to me how an iBracelet will succeed. But we know conventional wisdom and most of the analysis in 2007 and 2010 said the iPhone and iPad would fail. However, viewed through the lens of making jobs-to-be-done easier, the success of both the iPhone and iPad was very simple to predict.

          3. As I’ve said before, view it through the jobs-to-be-done lens. Others here have given specific use case examples. You seem to be lost in the weeds on this one. But I’ll give you one very easy use case. An iBracelet packed with sensors could gather data all day long about various aspects of my health and activity and compile that automatically in an app on my iPhone, allowing me to gain knowledge about the state of my health.

            I tend to think of the entire wearables category more as sensor accessories to start with. An iBracelet might also serve as a trigger for many things (identity, wallet, passcodes, etc), even as a controller for some things (Apple TV game box?). I might also be able to use an iBracelet to lojack my kids (or my parents, especially to keep tabs on their health). There’s lots more, just think for a while.

            The health aspects alone are enough to spur the 40 and over crowd. Perhaps you’re not old enough to realize how important it is to keep an eye on your health once you hit 40. Believe me, it’s huge. And while complex data coupled with recommendations and analysis requires serious regulation, there’s a ton Apple can do without getting bogged down in that respect.

        1. Because there is no real reason to wear anything on your wrist right now. That’s the whole problem with this market. There may be one day soon, a compelling reason to wear some type of device on the wrist. Until then, these smart watches will remain very niche. But to pretend that there are not possible compelling reasons is quite myopic.

          1. “Because there is no real reason to wear anything on your wrist right now. That’s the whole problem with this market. There may be one day soon, a compelling reason to wear some type of device on the wrist. Until then, these smart watches will remain very niche.”


            Don’t understand the myopic statement.

        2. Because most people don’t see the point to wear a watch as a smartphone can be used to get the time almost as easily? It is in fact the reason I do not wear a watch anymore since I have a smartphone (even if I am a Swiss citizen 🙂

          My point is that a smart watch is/will be/should be a lot more than a watch and I personally see many possible usages which cannot be replicated with a smartphone.

          Consider for example health/fitness. I would myself for example be very interested to see my old dad wear a smart watch with health sensors which could send me an alarm should something bad happen to him. Fitness tracking is obviously another possible usage.

          Or consider a smart watch used with indoor micro-location systems (such as iBeacon) to build a home automation system which would react when you enter or leave a room for example. I don’t see a problem wearing a watch at home while I don’t have my smartphone with me.

          I think people may consider wearing something on the wrist if it is something useful. And I think a smart watch could be something useful if done right.

          1. As someone with a medical condition — type 1 diabetes — I will tell you that medical device technology is nowhere near what you expect from any “smartwristthingy”.

            The glucometer than controls my insulin pump is almost as large as my iPhone. My CGMS sensor is the smallest on the market and yet is about the size of a fitbit.

            Devices that measure medical symptoms would need the approval of the FDA. Hardly consumer devices.

            iBeacon in the home isn’t a significant and convincing use case.

            Have you tried talking to non-geek consumers about these use cases and gauging interest?

  1. From a developer perspective, it does matter: will I be able to use a language a frameworks that I’m familiar with, or will I have to learn so,ething new? An Apple watch running iOS will run apps written in Objective-C, with frameworks similar to what we have on iOS today, making it faster and easier for devs to start writing apps for it.

    An Android dev looking to write apps for the Tizen-powered Gear is going to have a bigger learning curve. Agreed it was the right decision for them, but saying that the OS doesn’t matter at all is naive.

    1. For the developers, I understand the point (and I did make reference to the need for quality development tools), but for end users it does not matter and, if anything, actually confuses things to talk about operating systems. Saying that a watch runs Android or even iOS implies a level of compatibility to a user that is just not going to be there….hence the column.

      1. But if the end user doesn’t care and the developer does care, then why not using the same OS?

        To a certain extent, smartphones and tablets apps are also different (or should be), but it is extremely easy to create a universal app for both devices with 95% common code. While some apps make sense only for smartphones (e.g. voice related apps) or tablets, many can be used on both provided that the UI is optimized for both form factors.

        Even if smart watches have very tiny display, I think that many apps could also make sense for both smartphones and smart watches with a different UI.

        Moreover, an OS UI is the tip of the iceberg from a technical point of view and using the same “core” OS is an obvious choice (unless there are good technical reason not to use it, such as power consumption).

        The same apply to the iTV / NextGen AppleTV.

        Using the same OS makes thus a lot of sense for me as it is the best way to integrate all these devices into a common ecosystem which indirectly bring a lot of advantages to the end user. So end users do care about the OS, indirectly.

        The Tizen choice for Samsung is not a technical choice, it is a pure business strategy IMHO.

        “Similarly, I would not be the least bit surprised to see an Apple iWatch running something other than “traditional” iOS.”

        I would be very surprised myself.

        1. “But if the end user doesn’t care and the developer does care, then why not using the same OS?”
          Because the use cases and requirements might be different. You seem to assume they would be exactly the same.

          1. End-user use case has actually nothing to do with it. As Majipoor notes, the UI is a relatively small portion of the OS. The AppleTV is running a version of iOS, yet looks and works nothing like an iPhone. And Airport base stations run a subset kernel of iOS. Apple saves significant resources by only writing the networking framework for iOS once, and deploying it across all these products.

            Creating and supporting a whole new OS is no trivial matter – even before you get to develop resources and support. It would really only make sense if you were developing wearables that use a whole new, non-ARM, non-x86 architecture to be built from the ground up.

          2. I recall that OS X existed before iOS. I also recall that I had an AirPort Express before iOS existed and didn’t use OS X. So, Apple may be willing to create something else. All of this assumes a smartthingyonyourwrist is a viable product and that Apple is working on one. This is all conjecture.

          3. Building and maintaining an OS is a huge task.

            You can “easily” create a single OS with a different UI depending on the device: it is for example already the case for iOS for iPhone and iPad to a limited extent.

            But is is a lot more complex to build and maintain two different OS for a company, especially if you want that devices running both OS are seamlessly integrated (e.g. iCloud or AppStore for iOS).

            So, unless there are very good reasons not to do it, a company which already has a mature mobile OS *WILL* use the same OS for smart watches.

            Now, I am not able to tell you that there is no good reason (power consumption or resources requirement would make good candidates for example), but the fact that different uses cases or UI are required for different devices is NOT a good reason not to use the same OS.

          4. “Building and maintaining an OS is a huge task.”


            Another way of looking at it: the OEM who creates an OS is that OS’s first and most important developer. It may not matter to the customer what’s running under the hood (although in some cases it could be a marketing ploy), but it matters hugely to the manufacturer whether they are getting to re-use code that they understand well and that’s already been debugged and polished, or having ro reinvent and debug everything from scratch. As long as the kernel is lightweight enough to run on the hardware in question, using the same under the hood OS on different devices is just good sense.

            TL;Dr version: MS’s unifying of the code base of windows phone and windows desktop made perfect sense… Their unifying the UI of the two did not.

          5. I understand that there’s much more to an OS than what I described in the article but my focus was on how products are being positioned to the market and potential buyers, not how they’re explained to developers. To that end, even if they underlying core is based on an existing OS, you actually risk more confusion than help by talking about it “running that OS”. Simple point, if an end user here’s something is based on, say, iOS, they will expect to be able to run their iOS apps. Apple clearly recognizes this as they don’t publicly speak to end users about AppleTV running iOS because they don’t want to create unmeetable expectations.

          6. I understand your point, but I would myself not be surprised to see NextGen AppleTV and the iWatch tu run iOS and iOS apps.

            Of course, not all apps will be available on all devices, but it is already the case with the iPad and iPhone and as the AppStore only displays compatible apps, I don’t think it is that much confusing for end users.

            But as many apps will be available on all devices (with a different UI) and as all devices will share common OS paradigms such as iCloud services and touch gestures (for the AppleTV when controlled via a remote iOS device), I think it is actually a way to make the user feel “at home” whether they use an iPhone, an AppleTV or an iWatch.

            The current AppleTV is too limited to be positioned as an iOS device indeed, but it won’t be the case for the next generation.

  2. Wrist-worn computing device is a much better term for it. It is not going to be a watch, much like the smart phone is barely a phone. It is going to be your keys, your wallet, your log in to your computer/smart phone, your daily activity tracker, your music player on the go (going to need bluetooth earbuds).

    The successful “smart watch” will be a good value proposition on its own (no smart phone needed) but an amazing value proposition when a person owns the requisite smart phone as well.

    Does the OS matter? No, what matters is that people who are going to buy it actually want to use it.

    1. In an ideal world, yes, a wrist-worn computing device could be all those things (and more). The problem is, the infrastructure isn’t necessarily in place for all of those applications (wallet and mobile payment challenges in particular). Plus, even if the elements are available, you’ll end up paying more to put the pieces you need into place (such as wireless door locks) than you will for the device controlling the experience. While for some people that may be no issue, for others, that will be a deal killer.

      1. Seems to me that the market for the smart watch isn’t really there yet (according to what you just said). The timing for when all this will happen is very important. Samsung is out too early with a watch the primarily tried to be a smart phone extension. That’s exactly what Pebble is as well. The successful smart watch will be a device unto itself. And the technology (primarily energy) and infrastructure isn’t there yet.

        1. Oh, that depends. No matter how poor the experience and no matter how and how much people use them, as long as they come with a USB port, SD Card slot, removable battery etc., or as long as the OS is called something like Windows WT, then they should count as PCs.

          But if Apple makes one, and it sells in the 10s of millions at a price equal to netbooks or low-end PCs; and people wear it usefully for most of the day and use their PC less as a result; and users use it for a whole host of new uses never conceived of; and buy one for every family member instead of replacing the family PC… Then, no, by no means can it counted as a PC.

          1. Right!
            (Actually, I’ve delineated what IMO a PC is before. In short, it’s a general purpose computer that can be directly programmed and doesn’t require another computer to do it, though that can be an option too.)

          2. Heh, so true. The nerd crowd just doesn’t get it. “Blaaaarrrrrgh! A PC is only what I say a PC is!!!!!” All the while forgetting that even the ‘PC’ at one point wasn’t considered a ‘real computer’. Any new computing device slowly grows more and more capable, and at some point it becomes silly to claim it isn’t a real computer. But at the beginning the nerds cry “Nooooooooooo! That’s not a real computer!!!!”

      2. A lot of tech enthusiasts put the proverbial cart before the horse when it comes to average consumer adoption of technology. While i may be cool to electronically unlock my front door or open my garage with my phone, it isn’t very cool when the power goes out during a storm and I can’t get into my house and the battery on the door lock has failed. I like my keys.

        1. Seriously? You can’t think of how an automated system could default back to a manual system? It’s so simple. Heck, we’ve got stuff like that now. If my automatic side doors on my minivan stop working, can I still open my doors? Of course I can.

          1. Yeah sorry, I could have been less snarky, but honestly your comment was so dense it pissed me off. Look around you, we already have many automated systems that degrade to ‘manual’ if necessary. It ain’t rocket science.

      3. “wallet and mobile payment challenges in particular”

        Only time will tell which company will bring the first successful smart watch on the market, but it should be a company with a long term strategic vision, an existing very successful ecosystem, a large user base, a reputation to bring products on the market when they are ready and not before and may be a soon-to-be-announced mobile payment solution with hundreds of millions of user accounts with billing info.

        Oh, and a company which has a good sense of design as well because I would prefer to have something useful AND nice looking on my wrist.

        I have absolutely no idea which company will succeed. Absolutely.

          1. It’s just easier, that’s all. Is the iPhone a phone, or even a smartphone? Not really, it’s a Mac in your pocket. And a smartwatch (done right) won’t really be a watch or a smartwatch (but one of the many functions will be to tell time). Humans like to give things names, so we come up with easy to remember terms that mean ‘this buncha crap over here’. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the name of the category.

          2. I believe that words matter. So when you call something a phone, people expect it to behave like a phone. When you call something a watch, people expect it to behave and function like a watch. So what does the words smart watch meaning to the average consumer? I certainly do think it matters what you call something. Otherwise we’ll have no idea what we are talking about.

          3. Well, obviously then the very poorly named iPhone and iPad have been huge failures since people were totally confused about how those devices behaved and functioned… oh, wait.

            The iPhone especially is an interesting name to look at. It was named ‘iPhone’ because that was the market it was entering, consumers understood the concept of a phone in their pocket. But the iPhone wasn’t a phone, that was simply one thing it did. It was really a cheap Mac in your pocket, hence the bottom up disruption of the entire phone industry.

            Now, Apple might call a wrist device an iWatch simply because that’s an easy frame of reference and one of the things it will do is tell time, but it will do so much more than that. Give consumers a little credit, they will easily understand that an iWatch isn’t just a watch. Of course Apple isn’t targeting the entire market, they focus on a segment of the market, and among that segment the naming issue won’t be a problem.

            One more thought, many people mocked the name iPad at first, now we don’t even think about it. Humans get used to naming conventions pretty quickly. You need not be concerned.

  3. This type of device will only sell in small quantities, and that’s all. Young people don’t wear anything on their wrists. Older people don’t want technology on their wrists.

    1. Yet. I agree that the current offerings are doing nothing to change behaviours. That doesn’t mean nothing can.


        1. Hell, I don’t know. But if we use history as a lesson, wearing a watch is not so out there as to be automatically discarded. I think it is going to depend a lot on the functions. The young (mostly) don’t wear _watches_ (they still often wear many things on their wrists, mostly decorative or social commentary) because they don’t need to, they use their cell phone. So if a smartwatch is thought of as only a smart_watch_, I think it is toast.

          But that doesn’t mean a time piece as part of the equation won’t help. I don’t think it is an aversion to watches per se. I think it is an aversion to having that “just one more thing to keep up with”.

          I hated how banged up it got, how cheap watches stained my wrist or got corroded by sweat, dealing with upkeep, _batteries_, etc. Unless the smart watch solves those problems, too, it has a hard row to hoe.

          Plus, most people had/have at least two, often more watches to fit different situations. How many people are going to buy, never mind afford, more than one smartwatch?

          So I really think the hope for a smartwatch is vertical, not horizontal. The “smart” part of that equation will help one or two devices from a vendor serve many needs/markets. There are still lots of uses for wrist technology—sky diving, scuba diving, and other niches.

          But, hey, it’s not my job to make a living at this stuff. A commonly worn wrist device is not without precedence. Quite frankly, I do think it is annoying having to pull out my cell phone just to see the time or weather. But keeping up a watch, especially batteries, apparently, is more annoying. The dead battery/constant winding is when I would usually ditch my watch anyway.

          Maybe Apple could just come out with a better watch, damn _smart_ watches. That would be cool.


  4. I do love the manner in which you have presented this specific matter and it does indeed offer me some fodder for thought. On the other hand, because of just what I have personally seen, I simply just hope as the actual remarks pile on that people continue to be on issue and in no way get started upon a soap box associated with the news of the day. Still, thank you for this superb piece and while I can not agree with it in totality, I value your viewpoint.

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