What makes a watch a Smart Watch?

Prior to Android Wear I honestly thought that most smart watches weren’t really Smart. There’s a lot of buzz, and hype around Smart Watches and wearable’s. For years I have been unbelievably enticed by the concept of a fully connected device on my wrist. As a kid my concept of a Smart Watch was more akin to a walkie talkie(think Knight Rider), but as an adult those delusions of grandeur look more like something out of Minority Report. Samsung’s “Galaxy Gear: A Long Time Coming” ad highlights this pretty well. However I wanted to dig deeper and think about what it means to be “Smart” in a connected device world.

What Makes A Device Smart

I decided to do some research into the origins of the term “Smartphone”. I had once read a definition that stated a Smartphone was a device that you could add applications to and extend its functionality. This is not a bad term but that actually precludes the first generation of iPhone from being a smartphone(which was an argument at the time of it’s release that many made). More recently PC Mag defines a Smartphone as “A cellular telephone with built-in applications and Internet access.” http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/51537/smartphone. Which would include the original iPhone and iOS 1 (I don’t think it was ever actually called iOS 1 though).

Crafting a smart watch definition from these ideas we get “A watch with built-in applications and Internet access”. Sounds a little vague still and I think we can all agree that we’ll be flexible with the “internet access part”. I don’t expect every watch to have 3G, or even Wi-Fi necessarily, but I certainly expect it to be able to tether to a smart phone and access information services via that connection. Since all of the watches labeled as “Smart” perform this function we’ll just label that as a given.

Built-in Applications

So let’s talk about the built-in applications part for a moment. I’m going to focus a bit on the Pebble for a moment because it’s a great candidate for this argument. I own a Pebble and use it a lot for the convenience of seeing my notifications on my wrist and not having to take my phone out pocket every time it vibrates. Notification viewing is of great utility but I have a hard time calling it a “Smart” feature. You can think of it as an application on the device, which it is, but I need more. The watch also comes a built in application for music control and clock, it tells time. So I guess it has built in applications, but are they that smart?

Well Pebble’s 2.x firmware allows you to add “Watch Apps” and Watch Faces. At first glance the apps just seem like watch faces with some extra information being displayed. As a developer I decided to dig deeper. The reality is Pebble provides developers with some fairly robust tools, including a cloud based IDE, to develop for the Pebble. It’s easy to use web services/APIs to pull in data to the Pebble, as well as push information from it. The Pebble can actually run JavaScript-ed code on itself. And while the interface is still fairly limited I feel the expandability of the platform allows the device to function in a much smarter manner then just telling time. Focusing on the “a smart watch needs apps” argument I think we can consider this a smart watch, and since it’s able to utilize your phones internet connection via Bluetooth it fulfills our two pronged test for a smart watch.

Now let’s look at the Galaxy Gear for a moment. While I haven’t had a lot of hands on time with these devices it’s fairly obvious that any number of smart phone functions are duplicated. You can reply to text messages, answer calls, and take pictures. Like the Pebble the Gear has a Developer Kit that allows Developers to create additional apps and functionality for the watch. So it’s a fairly easy argument that the Gear is smart. My biggest problem with the Galaxy Gear, it doesn’t work with my iPhone. I get it, kind of, but since it only works with a handful of phones (it doesn’t work with all Androids) Samsung is extremely limiting their marketplace. You could look at it as a Brand/ecosystem play but is their ecosystem that strong to have the watch limited to only a few devices that it works with? I digress.

Conclusion

So what have we done here? Well we defined a Smart Watch as “A watch with built-in applications and Internet access”. Then we tested that hypothesis with both the Pebble and the Samsung Gear. Basically I proved my own pessimism about the term “Smart Watch” wrong.

More of My Thoughts

I think these devices are just the tip of the iceberg. I believe Android Wear will really advance Smart Watches as a technology and as a consumer device. The enhanced interaction between watch and phone, as well as the standardization of a more open platform will allow developers greater freedom. And lets be honest if you keep the developers happy great things will happen.