I've lived with a smartwatch, in one form or another, for several periods over the past few years. Recently, with the Martian Passport. Further back, with the iPod Nano and a Hex wristband. Before that, a SPOT watch.
I love the idea of a smartwatch. Certainly, so does the media as of late. Bloomberg reports and iWatch rumors galore, plus various wearable watch-type items at January's CES, have started to give this territory the sense of a category.
Between the Martian and the Nano watch, I loved aspects of each -- and also found them both lacking. There's a middle ground. Some other smartwatches like the Pebble are starting to find it, but for the most part, I haven't seen another watch out there that's been what I want an iWatch -- or, any smartwatch -- to be.
I wrote an article last year discussing where smartwatches should go next. Today, I've narrowed that down to a simple nine must-haves for any watch I'd seriously want to buy and wear in 2013. It's a given that a smartwatch needs Bluetooth. But beyond that, it also needs the following:
1. Great battery life
Nobody wants to charge a wristwatch. I already have too many cables and batteries to monitor. There needs to be a breakthrough in battery life on smartwatches. The iPod Nano lasted most of a week between charges. So does the Martian. That's acceptable, barely. Regular watches last years. If smartwatch makers can't crack awesome battery life, hopefully they'll incorporate something else: kinetic or solar charging, or at least wireless recharging.
2. Music connectivity
A killer iWatch should store some music on flash storage, like an iPod, but also stream a variety of sources from a nearby phone or tablet. Controlling volume, basic track-skipping, and even browsing and playing music by request via Bluetooth. Of course, we'd also want the option to listen via Bluetooth headphones, as well as a good old-fashioned headphone jack. It needs to be the best remote control for music, and not feel hamstrung by a small interface.
3. Notifications and call screening
At the very least, a smartwatch needs to do a basic job as a wrist-worn pager: buzz, light up, show caller IDs for incoming calls, texts, and other basic messages. In an ideal world, that watch would also help answer calls by patching into a headset. The Martian Passport answers calls directly, but mainly via a speakerphone that's hard to hear and annoying to use. Android and iOS have deep sets of call and message-screening features that watches could take better advantage of.
4. Deep multipurpose second-screen connectivity with apps
I'd expect a wearable device to work with multiple apps, not just one. And I'd want to interact via touch, voice, or both, with software hooks into supported apps. Most smartwatches I've seen are limited to a custom app that funnels certain functions. Apple could bake a deeper level of iWatch support right into iOS, and even let other app developers build support for it via an SDK, too. Imagine motion-tracking games, health tech providers building monitoring systems that work via an iWatch...or specific watch apps for other outdoor needs (sports, travel, weather, and so on). Follow a live sports event on your watch with second-screen updates. Load custom Twitter or IM feeds. Turn it into a remote control, or even a wearable baby monitor screen. If there's any way for a smartwatch to break out of its definitional niche and become a killer device, it's with app support.
5. Health tracking
Any smartwatch that lacks any health-monitoring features gives a left-out feeling in 2013. The Martian Passport has many things, but no true pedometer. The older clip-on iPod Nano's Nike support and pedometer were among its saving graces, but it lacked Bluetooth. A smartwatch should support motion tracking, coaching, and, preferably, a way to patch in data from blood-pressure monitors, scales, and other gadgets if desired. In this aspect, a smartwatch should work on its own even when no phone is around, and be able to sync up later (a la the Fitbit).
6. A cool look
Don't underestimate this one. Wearable tech is a fashion statement. Consider that half the discussion about Google Glass is about how geeky/cool it'll make you seem. Watches are already unnecessary -- like eyeglasses, they're chosen for the look. We already expect Apple products to be A+ on design, so the bar's a lot higher for an iWatch. The Martian and the Nano-watch are the only cool-looking smartwatches I've seen.
7. A reasonable price
An iWatch will be an extra purchase. It won't replace an iPhone or iPad. So it needs to be closer in price to the Pebble ($150) than the Martian ($299).
8. Sweat resistance
Neither the Nano-watchband combo nor the Martian are water-resistant, but they're mildly splash-resistant. Health accessories, like the Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand, require sweat resistance. If it's on your wrist, it needs to be able to handle splashes. We're living, sweating creatures.
9. Simplicity (and just being a great watch)
Setting up a smartwatch is often an arcane procedure, which doesn't necessarily scream "consumer-friendly." Some of the Martian Passport's myriad features took a lot of fiddling to figure out. A smartwatch should make things easier, not more difficult. Otherwise, we'd just reach for our phones. Wireless connectivity should be seamless. And, obviously, a smartwatch should be a good watch. The Nano-as-watch has awesome watch faces, but you still need to press its button to see the time.
Include all of these things, and you have the perfect smartwatch. Right now, there isn't a wearable device that succeeds at every one. The field's open.
The landscape is too new, the products too mercurial, for this to feel like a real consumer category yet. But it's a landscape ripe for the claiming, if someone can figure out how to make a smartwatch everyone will want to buy.