This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week.
There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?
First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.
So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.
That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.
But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.
This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.
So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.
Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.
So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.
In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.
But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.
In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.
I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?