I Actually Really Want a Smartwatch

Illustration for article titled I Actually Really Want a Smartwatch

I think smartwatches are a really neat idea. It's been made clear to me—on Twitter, in the office, on the internet at large—that a lot of people disagree. With a burning passion. Let me try to explain to you why you are all wrong.


My life is an endless Pavlovian waltz. A ceaseless call-and-response between conditioned stimulus and conditioned reaction. My phone makes a noise (or a vibration), and I rush to turn it on and discover precisely what that noise (or vibration) means. This happens dozens upon dozens of times a day.

When my phone makes a noise, it is rarely in my hands. More often it is in my pocket, sometimes it is completely out of reach. This is an annoying hurdle between me and my conditioned needs.

I'm on the train to work, surrounded by a throbbing mass of agitated strangers. I don't want to elbow anyone in the kidneys but I need to know what just happened. I'm walking home from the bar and I've had a few. I'm in more-than-usual danger of dropping my phone as I carelessly rip it from my pocket but I need to know what just happened. I'm laying on the couch, excruciatingly comfortable after a long day of web logging. My phone is over by the desk but I need to know what just happened.

I don't want to read entire emails on my watch. I don't want to take pictures with my wrist. I don't want to shout at my arm like Dick Tracy. I do not want to watch YouTube videos on a 1.63-inch screen. I do not want or need "watch apps." But I do need to know what just happened. All I want is to cross the temporal gulf between knowing that something happened and knowing what happened with all due speed and convenience. Glancing at a screen that is affixed to my wrist and reading a snippet of text is a dream come true.


You might ask me why settle for a screen on my wrist—which requires the ludicrous effort of a glance—when I could just have a screen mounted in front of my eyes and be done with it. Well, I don't wear glasses most of the time, and I'd rather not start if I can avoid it.


But I already wear something on my wrist! And occasionally I look at it! It was designed to be glanced at! I mean come on you guys, this is perfect! Smartwatches are going to be awesome! How can anyone not see this?!

We're not there yet. Not at all. And if you want to say smartwatches are dumb in practice, I'd be stupid to argue. On one end of the sophistication spectrum, the Pebble is always on and simple, but has primitive physical buttons and is hideous. On the other, the Galaxy Gear has apps and a camera and isn't even a functional watch until you turn on the screen. The Qualcomm Toq seems to fall somewhere in the middle, but it's pretty biggish and doesn't have a price yet; I'll bet it's too high. Besides, that's not even intended for a wide release.


The perfect smartwatch is a matter of restraint. It will shunt phone notifications onto your wrist and little else. It'll be smallish, cheapish, able to get through a day or two without a charge. It'll be a competent digital watch that will show you things besides the time. Maybe it'll even let you pause your music, or keep your phone's lockscreen disabled when it's connected. A cheap, stylish smartwatch is by no means as impossible as something like, I don't know, a self-driving car. We're going to get there. How does this not sound fantastic to everyone? Why aren't you all as excited as I am that we are on the way?


In the meantime, smartwatches might only be attractive to dweebs like me who have (ever so slightly) more money than patience and don't mind wearing something a little chunky because function over form. That being the case, I swear I'm going to try to wait this out until things get better.

And then I'll scoff at your emails from awesome smartwatch-land, you losers.

Image Source: Shutterstock user Maryna Pleshkun



Kyle Wagner

I don't want a smartwatch. I don't, and will not. Because the very idea of a smartwatch, even at its platonic ideal, is basically NFC. Let me explain.

Like NFC, the smartwatch concept is a Rube Goldberg solution to a problem so small that it is solved by reaching into your pocket. One of the core issues with the concept of NFC, or at least how it is being instituted, is that it does not really free you from anything. It just does the same things, with slightly more hassle and risk of battery failure, as a credit card or cash. A credit card which you still have to carry around, because not everyone is going to accept NFC. The convenience of having your payments consolidated onto your phone was outstripped and undermined by several payment companies consolidating your payment data the way the NFC wallet was originally supposed to, leaving it with just the gimmick of tapping your phone to pay.

The smartwatch is even worse. Its features are inferiorities instead of parallels. Everything it does is a thing a smartphone does, just a little worse, and with a little less refined an interface, and with another battery you need to worry about, and as a fashion constant, an accessory that needs to be worn prominently in order to be useful. These aren't death knells for a product that does something deeply useful, but they are for one with ambitions so narrow.

Let's go back to the problems with NFC, or actually, the credit card. The reason that the credit card became no less than one of the greatest technological standards in history is that it solved a real world problem. You wouldn't have to run to the bank by 5PM to get cash, or risk running short after a few rounds too many at dinner and running home for more, leaving your jacket as collateral. You could just pay up, like magic, or like a proto-cloud payment structure.

Then look at all the products that changed how people use stuff, the ones that actually caught on and changed the tech landscape like the smartwatch would have to if it were to become a viable product category. They also solved things. The Walkman made music portable. The iPod made that portability comprehensive with the iTunes store, after other MP3 players failed to recognize that it wasn't just capacity, but organization (let's not even talk about the MiniDisc). Cell phones took communication out into the world, and smartphones adapted for the ways that communication changed. (The same holds true for software and platforms, like Facebook and Dropbox, to a lesser degree.)

In comparison, a smartwatch is a trinket, a toy that augments a product that already exists in a superflous way. It's more MiniDisc than it is iPod, or even Zune. And yes, the shifts in technology are always subtle, and sometimes we don't know what we really want until we see it done right, not just done for the hell of it. The Steam and the iPod are examples of that. But again, this compulsion is a personal one, held by those wonderful nerds who physically require constant information stimulation to be at peace. That is not (yet, at least) the way that most other human beings want to exist. And there just isn't enough upside in this version of the idea of a smartwatch.

(Without touching too heavily on it, since it's a matter of culture and preference instead of pure technology, I'd say maybe the "always need to know exactly what my alerts are" compulsion is tied to the very specific job we do here. We need to know about breaking news, and it's a problem if we don't. Sure, a smartwatch would help with that, and it would help a doctor or maybe an EMT, or a handful of other professions. But only those professions. For everyone else, the broad utility of constant, immediate access is an impressive feature, but maybe just noise.)

Maybe a generation or five down the road, chips will be good enough to power something really special. Maybe the Glass geolocating, alerting, life-capturing model can co-exist as both on-face apps and wrist-mounted ones (which could add biometric data as well), growing a combined ecosystem that can grow the two together, along with anything else we come up with—maybe pendant-like screens, like the apparats from Super Sad True Love Story. Maybe something else we can't even imagine will be irrestibly wonderful, and find its way into a smartwatch, and I'll print this comment out and eat it. But whatever that is, it will have a to be so staggeringly wonderful to make me not even consider just reaching into my pocket and using my phone.