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Smartwatches, Distraction and Solid Gold Tech 18 Mar 2015

It seems like everyone is talking about smartwatches at the moment. The indie success of Pebble in 2012 arguably fuelled consumer level interest in the market, a market which is currently exploding thanks to the myriad of Android Wear devices that are now making their way onto their doting owner’s wrists. And with the launch of the Apple Watch less than 5 weeks away, the smartwatch is quickly becoming a ‘thing’.

I, myself, am not a fan. Anyone who’s mentioned the topic to me has already had to endure listening to me rant on about these little devices. What follows is that rant in written form, giving you the precious advantage of being able to click away as soon as you get sick of what I’m saying.

(Disclaimer: what follows is why I won’t be buying a smartwatch. I’m not trying to tell you how to spend your money.)

Smartwatches

My first argument against the things is that I like conventional watches too much. And wearing a smartwatch means removing said conventional watch from your wrist; you can’t really wear both, unless you fancy yourself as a new-age fashion crusader with a watch on each wrist.

I currently wear a simple mechanical Tissot that I received for my 21st birthday, and although I’ve only owned it for a few weeks I already feel a sentimental attachment to it. The sort of sentimental attachment that I’ve never felt towards my phone, or my laptop, which I tend to replace every few years.

Tissot

So that’s point 1. Although electronic devices are typically very personal things, loaded with thousands of images from countless events and acting as a direct communication point to anyone we wish to contact, they always feel very impersonal to me; another tool for another task. And whilst a conventional watch only really exists to perform the task of telling the time, there’s a definite elegance in boiling down this task into a dedicated device, especially one that doesn’t require a software update every 6 months and a charge every night. So, irrelevant of the abilities of a smartwatch, I’m unlikely to displace a conventional timepiece for one.

Related to this is how these smartwatches actually look. Although this is less relevant now since most newer Android Wear devices such as the Moto 360 actually look pretty good, some early attempts (cough original Pebble cough) were less attractive; I personally wouldn’t want to wear a plasticky mini-Kindle on my wrist.

(To Pebble’s credit, the tech at the time was new, and the Pebble Steel/Time are both massive improvements.)

…But Why?

Moving on from points of personal attachment, I feel like a more pressing issue is that I don’t really understand what I’d use a smartwatch for. I can’t think of a single application, minus possibly recording my heartbeat, that a smartwatch would perform better than my phone, which is in my pocket anyway.

Whenever I see a video demo of someone controlling an implementation of Google Maps on a ~1.6” screen using a fiddly ‘digital crown’, I just think about what I’d do in the same situation: reach into my pocket and use a device with a larger screen, more responsive processor and superior interface. Does the inconvenience of that action really exceed the inconvenience of having to deal with a limited device?

Of course, there are the minor actions that shouldn’t really warrant removing a device from your pocket, such as changing the currently playing song. Aha! Maybe there is a purpose for these devices! A £300 song-selection module!…

…except that this problem has been solved. Inline controls on headphones give you the power to skip through tracks, as well as invoke your favourite voice assistant (Google Now, Siri, …), allowing you to do most simple actions, if voice control is your thing. Voice control is not my thing, but I admit that there’s scope there for usefulness.

I just get the impression that whenever someone attempts to demo the utility of their newest smartwatch, they have to try very hard to make it seem useful. Watching Apple’s recent Watch event gave off that feeling, with the majority of App demos showing how they’ve managed to squeeze a task that was simple to do on a phone down to a tiny display, obviously reducing usability in the process. They were very proud of this, of course.

I’m not just full of criticism however. One area where I can imagine smartwatches being useful is fitness. Running or cycling are two situations where you’d really rather not have to deal with your phone, but you may want some from of feedback such as your average speed or calorie count, and glancing at a smart watch for this information does seem helpful.

However, if you were buying a smartwatch for fitness purposes, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just save a load of money and buy a good fitness tracker instead, which are probably better suited to these types of tasks. Unless you want to integrate fitness abilities with your song-selection module.

Distraction

In my mind, a smartwatch is just another distraction. In the age that we’re in, where information is instant and notifications overwhelming, I personally cannot imagine having a device that channels notifications to me by vibrating strapped to my wrist all day. Recently I’ve started attempting to reduce such distractions; my phone spends a lot of time in ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, allowing me to check notifications when I please, and I tend to check my emails on my laptop every few hours rather than welcome pushed updates from Gmail.

I’ve even gone as far as to block Facebook, YouTube and a few other sites at the DNS level, preventing me from wasting time by insistently checking each one when really I know that nothing has changed. I’m finding that this is having a great affect on my productivity in general, so I don’t think a wrist-mounted notification device is for me.

I feel like distractions such as these are taking over our lives. I’m not going to start talking rubbish about how the advent of smartphones means that no-one talks to each other any more, however I’ve found myself in the presence of some serious phubbers recently. Sometimes, it feels great to detach from the world of always-connected devices, even if just for a little bit.

The Apple Watch

I’m going to end this rant by talking specifically about the Apple Watch. Everything I’ve said here applies directly to it, however there’s one particular thing that Apple is trying that I find very peculiar. Of course, it’s the Apple Watch Edition.

First of all, I know that they’re going to sell truck loads of these things; it’s obviously not marketed at me.

However, the idea of buying a solid gold device that’s going to be essentially out of date in a few years time seems absurd. That’s one difference between a conventional watch and a smartwatch; the former is always relevant for as long as time is told the way it is, however as soon as software support ceases or a superior model is released, the latter becomes a second-rate product. I’m assuming that Apple is going to offer some form of upgrade service so that these solid gold watch bodies don’t become useless as soon as the interior electronics do, but time will tell.

Also, their pricing is hilarious at times. The strap on this model? A £5,500 premium over the Apple Watch Edition with a sportband. You could buy a Rolex with a handmade in-house movement for that.

It’ll be interesting to see just how successful this ‘super-premium’ personal electronics approach is.

Probably very.