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codeMartin ‘MC’ Brown is the author and contributor to over 26 books covering an array of topics, including the recently published Getting Started with CouchDB. His expertise spans myriad development languages and platforms Perl, Python, Java, JavaScript, Basic, Pascal, Modula-2, C, C++, Rebol, Gawk, Shellscript, Windows, Solaris, Linux, BeOS, Microsoft WP, Mac OS and more. Martin currently works as the Director of Documentation for Continuent.

The current trend for the release of SmartWatches is, to me, an inevitable part of people wanting to be connected, but not necessarily wanting to get out their phones. Let’s not forget Google’s Smartglass, which is, in so many ways, a very similar idea. A passive device that shows you information without you having to get your mobile phone out; Google Glass does it through your glasses; a watch does it on your wrist.

What’s interesting is the responses and comments to the SmartWatch genre by many people inside and outside the community, and generally, they fit into the following categories:

  1. Why would I want a watch?
  2. Why doesn’t insert SmartWatch here do this?
  3. If it doesn’t replace my phone, I don’t see the point.

First up, to those of you who don’t see the point of wearing of watch, stop reading now. If you don’t wear any kind of watch, a SmartWatch is not going to solve any problems for you. There are, though, good reasons why people wear watches, not least of which, it’s generally a lot quicker than any other method of getting the time other than retrieving your mobile phone from wherever you have it stored.

There are also some other aspects to the SmartWatch technology right now that need to be determine and explained.

First up, I believe there are really three categories of SmartWatch: standalone watches, mobile phone integrated watches and mobile phone watches.

Standalone SmartWatches

There are numerous examples of standalone SmartWatches, and there have been for some time. For instance, we have the multi-sensor Casio’s (like the Pathfinder); I bought my first one more than 20 years ago. Watches like Microsoft’s now defunct SPOT watch fit somewhere in the middle. The list ends with the super-smart, wrist top computers like the Suunto Ambit/2, Garmin Forerunner and many other examples.

They all do more than just provide a method for determining where your next meeting is; they are certainly more intelligent and powerful than a typical analogue or digital watch. I have a number of examples; my Ambit has built-in GPS and tracks my hikes and walks, and, although I gain a lot by connecting it up to my computer (, there’s a lot I can do without ever wiring up that cable.

More specifically, with that cable, I can upload ‘apps’ to an Ambit or Ambit 2 to do everything from providing routes for walking to monitoring my exercise in different ways in combination with live data.

I think a lot of people forget actually how powerful these are. They may not be ‘true’ SmartWatches (they rarely have phone integration), but they do show a supreme amount of computing power and they have provided a base on which the current crop of SmartWatches both need to base their power, style, and functionality.

Mobile Phone Integrated Watches

The mobile phone integrated watches are what most people consider to be a SmartWatch, and it starts with Sony’s SmartWatch and moves through to the Pebble, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear. There are other units both available (I like the MetaWatch that has a restricted, but very useful and capable interface, and I have a Kreyos on order). Pebble made the headlines primarily because it is a relatively open platform that makes it extraordinarily easy to develop your own apps with.

These watches are powerful in their own right, but they all need a mobile phone to work effectively. For example, the Pebble is great as a watch, and I’ve written so many different watch faces and applications for it that it is easy to see the power of the unit without ever connecting it up. Once you pair it with your phone, however, you can get your notifications of email and texts without having to get your phone out.

The Samsung, Sony and other units are the same, to varying degrees of success and usability. They act as second-screens and notification windows onto your mobile phone world. As someone who travels, and occasionally hosts stands at exhibitions and walks large distances throughout the year, not having to get my phone out to determine if an email is important or not is a godsend.

In reality, these watches aren’t really as ‘smart’ as they make themselves out to be. Without the mobile phone, the utility of the watch is somewhat reduced. That’s not to say they’re not useful. That remote screen, if properly integrated, can save you time and provide a useful interface to things like your music, remote access to your camera and a lot more.

Even with the limited interfaces offered by the Sony and Samsung, and the more limited interface of the Pebble, the usefulness of the watch, compared to the alternative, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Mobile Phone Watches

There are a few mobile phone watches available (there’s even a website in the UK dedicated to selling them (, but let’s face it, they are less practical than they could be. Speaking into your watch Dick Tracy style is seen as the goal, but in reality, using it with a headset is better. The interface, though, leaves something to be desired on these platforms because of the power of the watches and the size of the display.

Limiting Factors of SmartWatches

What I want to talk about here are both perceived, and non-perceived, limiting factors of the current watches; they impact the capabilities and appeal of these to various degrees.

Battery Size

My Pebble lasts about 3-4 days if it’s on notification mode, and my MetaWatch about the same. Both last slightly longer without the notifications being enabled. My Suunto, even when walking long distances, will usually last the week on one charge, but it depends on what I’ve been doing, the quality of the GPS signals (walking in iron-rich mountains or forests doesn’t help).

Are these bad times? No. My iPhone doesn’t last this long; I’m lucky to get a day out of that if I’ve been busy on it. It might last 36-48 hours if I haven’t been using it much.

Strangely, though, many of the complaints leveled at a watch is that the battery life is not long enough.

Why is plugging in a watch overnight different to a mobile phone? I honestly don’t know. OK, I appreciate it’s often another cable, and some of them are difficult to use (I’m looking at you MetaWatch and Suunto), but honestly these are minor considerations.

This raises the perception problem; we are used to a watch lasting for a year or more on a battery and we’re not used to needing to charge it on a regular basis. We managed it with phones. I used to charge my T68i and K800 every 3-4 days, sometimes longer, even when using it. I don’t think twice now about plugging in my mobile at the end of the day.

One thing that would help here is an easier way to charge a SmartWatch. A USB slot would be more compatible, but it sacrifices space from a device that already has to be small.

Display Size/Interface

This is another frequent complaint – either that the display isn’t big enough/high resolution, or that the interaction is limited. The Pebble, for example, is limited to three buttons (one is used to go ‘back’ from an app), whereas the Samsung has a touch screen. The MetaWatch has 6 buttons to select different options.

The display size is important, but I think it leads to the roles of these watches in your life. This is *not* a replacement for your phone, but an additional display. Do I need to read the entire email on my watch? No, but I do need to know who it is from. Seeing the content of a text is also fine, but longer content is just silly on such a tiny screen; any more than having a 21 inch monitor displaying your caller ID would be.

For touchscreen, and watches in general, higher resolution is good, but fingers are typically so big that you need gestures or some selection mechanism to provide any more than four touch points on the watch face to make it practical.

There are also limitations to the user interface. Dialing someone from your watch looks cool, even if the audio goes through a headset, but the reality is that finding a number on your watch is slower than asking Siri or using voice dialing is to find a number you know.

This is a user interface problem that I believe will go away as we move to more voice activation and watches start to incorporate Leap Motion technology. That might offer a more accessible interface that makes more sense.

The downside is that increased display/gadgets limits battery life, but that will improve over time as well.

But more practically, I think the importance and difference of the watch over a mobile phone is that the watch should be displaying information all of the time. You lose something if the watch has to be activated (even with a flick of the wrist). When connected to a watch, this is even more important. Looking at my wrist compared to getting out the phone, opening the case and switching the phone on.

Additional Sensors/Devices

I’ve had a ‘triple sensor’ Casio Pro-Trek for 25 years, and a temperature sensing watch for longer than that. I own numerous Suuntos and I think for any serious outdoor enthusiast the combination of weather and monitoring (altitude, temp) are invaluable. I’ve been warned of approaching storms, I’ve used it to tell when the good weather is coming and I’ve used it to check the temperature of the outside pool at the villa.

Cadence sensors are now common for sports, although I’m not sure that the wrist is the most practical place for the sensor. Alternatively, used with, or replaced by GPS, gets you that stage further, but space is again the problem when combined with everything else.

What else could we sensibly have? I think NFC is the next big thing for a watch, as it is easy to add as a device for identifying the watches location. I also think if we are truly looking for something smart then we need to be thinking about integration with home devices; maybe Zigbee or similar radios. This would be without stretching to Wifi (battery sapping) and assuming we don’t want to rely on the phone to provide that connectivity.

What about a camera? No, really. The ergonomics and usability of that just don’t make sense. I don’t care how good the sensor is, being able to tell what you are taking a photo of combined with the practicality of pointing your wrist in the right direction, it just doesn’t make sense.

Form Factor

A surprising fact about SmartWatches is that they all look like watches.

That’s honestly not as odd as it sounds. Everybody is trying to make something that doesn’t look too far outside of the norm in terms of a device that you wear on your wrist.

But I think this is a lost opportunity. Increasing the size of the watch increases the screen area, battery, additional sensor space, and it will make for more useful and effective displays and interfaces. A Pebble that was twice the width would make a huge difference to the utility of the unit without really increasing the watch size behind some larger units. In fact, my Ambit is larger than two Pebbles side by side; and my original Pro-Trek is almost three Pebble’s wide.

But there’s a different trick here too; multi display, angled or curved (now possible) will make a huge difference. Imagine a unit 3 inches wide, and 3 inches high that wraps around your wrist. I can look at it while typing or reading without having to twist my wrist while taking full advantage of that full screen display when it comes to receiving and email, or using it for navigation.

It takes a leap of faith and usability to make it work, but units like the Leikr ( are a step in the right direction.

We are never going to break out of the ‘watch’ aspect of the SmartWatch without something that isn’t trying to cram advanced technology into a slightly oversized watch case. One thing I respect Pebble for is making one that wasn’t circular, and the unit is stylish overall.


We are right at the start of SmartWatch technology, and having decent applications. Currently these are very focused on things related to time (obviously), exercise, and phone integration, but we need to be working beyond this limitation.

Again, there are two aspects to this that I think are important:

  1. A SmartWatch should be able to do a large amount of work independently of a Smart Phone.
  2. With integration to a mobile phone, the experience should be a step up.

Let’s take a typical, current, application of your sports watch. Without my phone, a SmartWatch should be able to record, store and measure my run/walk/cycle, and store many of these until I can sync up. And indeed many of the current solutions do. But when I have a mobile phone available, I should get all of that functionality plus mapping, guidance, notifications.

Looking ahead, if we move to using watches for things like travel cards, digital wallet, door locks, even controllers for your home lighting (rock on Lifx!), then having an app on my watch that enables me to do that effectively would be great. But I don’t want to rely on my mobile phone when I need to do that. Especially in the house, since I’m not always 6 feet away from my mobile phone.

Equally, for apps in general, we need to be thinking about tools that make our lives easier. Being able to pay for my groceries by putting my watch near a sensor is a pipe right now, but I do think there are tools for managing your work day, meetings, and to do lists, that are possible with a watch acting as the trigger/reminder.

But beyond watches too; there are limits; I’m not expecting Evernote on my watch, but maybe getting business metrics on a watch, support call numbers or notifications (Zendesk customs), or even a ‘you should be at this office/dentist/doctors and I can sense you are not’, and integrated notifications/guidance will be part of the killer apps.

A watch that could not only help me where I need to be, but also sense where I am/should be, and if necessary what jobs I need to do while I’m there, would all go a long way to making the watch a personal assistant with just a little more privacy than my mobile phone (and without requiring the phone to come out my pocket).

This will turn the SmartWatch back into its classic role – timekeeper – but with the addition of the intelligence required to make it an effective tool both without, and with, a mobile phone.


I don’t want my watch to replace my mobile phone.  I think we are years away from that either being possible or practical, and I think it will take a huge sociological shift (in the same way as mobile phones did 20 years ago) to make it acceptable. I do think that with a combination of, say, a watch, audio headset and Google Glass, we could finally be at the trifecta of units that make sense, and really with no mobile required.

But for a watch to be truly useful across a wide spectrum of use cases behind just an extension of the display on your wrist it needs to be connected to more than your phone.

We also need watches and phones to know more about their environment and be able to identify, respond and control different aspects. I mentioned door locks and lighting systems before, but that just scratches the surface.

If I have my watch and my phone, and my phone knows I normally do my exercise in the morning, then when I look at my watch, it should suggest to start GPS tracking my run or walk, and begin measuring my heart rate. It knows where I am, and what time it is so it should be helping.

Where Next?

So where are we heading with this? The key thing is that SmartWatches are in their infancy, if not in their newborn state. We have so much to learn, develop, and think about the SmartWatch as an effective technology platform.

We have some wonderful products out there, and I’m unlikely to let go of any of my collection any time soon, but over the next 2-3 years we can expect to see a slew of new watches and functionality. The Samsung and Sony watches are already showing signs of new functionality, and new ideas, like the Rufus Cuff ( show where bigger, more substantial displays can have a role. But the process needs to be streamlined, improvised and integrated for the entire solution to be more practical for more than the geek market.


SmartWatches need to be more than just an extension of your phone, or a replacement of your watch.

Look below for some books covering mobile and SmartWatch design and development from Safari Books Online.

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Safari Books Online has the content you need

Designing Multi-Device Experiences demonstrates the variety of ways devices relate to each other, combining to create powerful ensembles that deliver superior, integrated experiences to your users.
Designing Apps for Success provides web/app designers and developers with consistent app design practices that result in timely, appropriate, and efficiently capable apps. This book covers application lifecycle management that designers and developers use when creating apps for themselves or the entities that hired them. From the early discussions with a company as to how to what kind of app they want, to storyboarding, to developing cross platform, to troubleshooting, to publishing.
Sensor Technologies: Healthcare, Wellness and Environmental Applications explores the key aspects of sensor technologies, covering wired, wireless, and discrete sensors for the specific application domains of healthcare, wellness and environmental sensing. It discusses the social, regulatory, and design considerations specific to these domains.

Tags: Ambit, Dick Tracy, Google Glass, Leap Motion, Pathfinder, Pebble, Samsung Galaxy Gear, smart watch, SmartWatches, Sony,

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