Watches: Luxurious Frivolity vs. Humble Practicality

Watches: Luxurious Frivolity vs. Humble Practicality

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Smartwatches still have a lot of growing up to do. Not too long ago the latest Canalys figures revealed a rather disappointing outcome for 2014, something we covered with the ultimate conclusion that, once again, smartwatches had no year. The direction of smartwatches is unclear to even the biggest OEMs, and with every new option there seems to be polarizing dissonances from what people and OEMs want and what they both think they want. We’ve documented many of the reasons as to why Wear hasn’t had the traction it should have had, but Wear isn’t alone.

The core of the matter is that there’s no absolutely compelling package just yet. They all lack something, and with smartwatches the faults intensify. Bad build quality would wear out the constantly-exposed gadget rather fast, and poor battery life would just add further unnecessary constraints. Then things like a slow processor can further detract from the experience in a bigger magnitude than it does with smartphones: if smartwatch interactions are meant to be short 5 second sessions, a 1 second stutter would hurt you more than it would on the longer smartphone uses. Lastly, it is also clear that a bad design would not benefit anyone, given the thing will be strapped to your wrist throughout the day for everyone – and yourself – to see, unlike the pocket-hidden smartphones.

Smartwatch or a smarter watch?

All these features need to come together, and as far as I know, nobody has gotten it right just yet. This week we saw two very, very enticing additions to the smartwatch game: the Pebble Time and the LG Watch Urbane. It is kind of ironic (but understandable, given MWC’s proximity) that these two would be unveiled so closely, as they are the polar opposites of smartwatch paradigms. Let’s look at the LG Watch Urbane – what does it bring that’s new? Well, it is clear to everyone that it is simply just a prettier G Watch R. A good-looking, well-built metal G Watch R, and nothing more; at least nothing more that matters. Everything Wear does, and everything Wear will do, this does and will do too. Its only differentiation is its appearance. Then we have the Pebble Time, and rather than appearance it focuses on the user experience with a revamped interface on a revamped operating system. That is its differentiation, but in doing so it didn’t pay much attention to what the Watch Urbane focused on so fervently.

These two paradigms are not entirely conflicting, but they are unquestionably fragmenting the smartwatch customer base. The Watch Urbane’s appeal comes solely from its luxurious look, but from what we know and expect there will be nothing else to talk about it. If you look at its product video, you’ll notice it shows zero software features. Hell, if you didn’t know it was a Wear smartwatch beforehand, you would probably end up a little confused as it only shows watchfaces, all but one being analogue. It just looks like a watch, which is fine – but they didn’t even try to make it look like a smartwatch (it’s more of a smartwatch, I’d say). In this regard, I feel like manufacturers like LG are simply, or at the very least increasingly, trying to cater to those who want something pretty on their wrist that additionally acts as a notification center. While this sector of the market is definitely one to look after, solely catering to these consumers kind of drabs Wear innovation in a way.

But then you’ve got Pebble. From the very start, their goal was to make a smartwatch, and they succeeded. Their original kickstarter was a rotund success in 2013, having gathered over 10 million dollars (10 times more than they had set the goal for), and selling over 1 million devices since it hit the market that year. Their formula for success was focusing on usability and reach: Pebble doesn’t discriminate as much as Wear does, and it doesn’t need awesome tweaking to get it to work on iOS. This would understandably increase their number of possible customers, and dramatically so given that it is the only worthwhile smartwatch option on iOS for the time being.  Pebble’s humble design and e-ink display do wonders at keeping the price low and the battery alive, but nevertheless the sector that wants a smartwatch mostly see it as unworthy of their wrist. The Pebble Steel did alleviate that with a more elegant design, but when you’ve got options like the Moto 360 roaming, it’s a hard sell for those that want something more stylish.

Paradigms

Why do they adopt these different strategies? For one, I think that Google’s tight control on Wear hurts innovation. While I originally loved the idea of fast, homogeneous updates, I am personally starting to reconsider my stance: manufacturers like Motorola and LG have amazing amounts of resources that they could pour onto the software aspect, to help innovate smartwatches as a whole; by having Google carefully dominate the future of Wear, their deviating ideas can’t bring original new features to the platform – because the option isn’t there, so they don’t have much of a reason to develop them themselves and we aren’t aware of any incentives for collaboration either. Take Samsung, for example: their Tizen offering on their latest smartwatches, like the Gear S, is actually very fleshed out and has some great additional functionality not seen on Wear, such as calling (speakers included), built-in web-browsing and HERE navigation which is a promising real-time tracking alternative for GPS. None of this is present on Wear, for some good or bad reasons. And while Wear is all about short interactions, some of the additional functionality is rather practical and pushes the capabilities of the platform – something Wear severely lacks.

So much like the Android forks often presented new great features that eventually made it to AOSP, some Wear forks could achieve the same. But the heart of the matter is that we don’t even need Wear OS forks, just OEM software. The freedom for them to release new services as stand-alone modules or applications is there, but they don’t exploit it. If each OEM would dedicate fractions of time of their software divisions to smartwatches, we would see a lot of additional innovation and diversity without necessarily having the downsides that full-blown forks would entail. Instead, the Wear OEM wagon focuses on the hardware, and the software feels like an afterthought that they flash at the end of the assembly line. They built the hardware around the appearance rather than the user experience – and that’s fine. But even after getting the latest Wear update on my Gear Live, I can’t help but feel that Wear is incredibly dull, and knowing that the dullness permeates throughout every single Wear device is kind of discouraging me from future investments into the platform.

My perception on Wear was further rectified when I saw the new Pebble Time kickstarter, which was anything but dull on the software side. The new “Timeline” is colorful and charming, and while the animations run at 30 frames-per-second on what looks like a Gameboy Color screen, I am completely sold on the concept. What’s to love the most about this product, however, is its focus on the user experience, and how the hardware is built around that. Rather than forcefully cram in all the components on a beautiful chassis like the Moto 360 did, they focused on the guts and what the guts did. The phone is a battery-filled little square and that’s good enough for a smartwatch. Where as the design of the Moto 360 was so intricately gorgeous that it took funds from the battery (bad endurance), screen (bad density) and processor (bad performance and drain), this one seemingly has no compromises to the experience it tries to deliver.

But this is not to say it doesn’t have compromises: the design is hideously cheap-looking. It is not horrible, mind you, but it looks like something you’d find at a bargain bin at a cheap bazaar. Whereas Wear OEMs are trying to pull out increasingly gorgeous designs, I think this is a step backwards for Pebble, given the improvements (shown on the left) they had going for them with the Pebble steel. Now, the software itself doesn’t look bad, which is a major plus, but the black bezels around it, with further uninspired metal ones surrounding that as well make for something that is clearly outclassed by most other options as far as aesthetics go. But there is something really amazing that should be discussed a little more about this watch’s aesthetics: its always on color e-paper screen. We tackled the issue of dimmed screens for Wear previously, based on the idea that the black-and-white ambient mode hurt the otherwise great aesthetic of wear devices. This watch employs the kind of alternative solutions we had discussed in that article to deliver readable, beautiful, colorful and expressive watchfaces at all times, which I find a big plus as a Wear owner.

For Better or Worse

I think that these paradigms have their pros and cons. On one side, Pebble’s approach allows the tech-savvy to get a great deal of a watch (function) and a great deal out of said watch (function). The new timeline features look intuitive, well designed and the inspiration they took from Wear’s vertical alignment of information is super obvious. The fact that they are also casting away the emphasis from the app-based system of the original Pebble also reminds me of Wear’s approach. In this sense, I feel like Pebble is doing what Google can’t or refuses to do – and that is providing dramatic improvements and optimizations to the system. The fact that Pebble also has mic support for notification responses as well as all the physical buttons can make navigation and practicality all that it can be.

But the Wear OEMs are offering us something that is probably more attractive to the mainstream public, given that Wear has been doing pretty well despite its little pragmatic incentive. It is also obvious that those looking for a wearable Android have a big bias for design: despite the Moto 360’s failure of a launch, the controversy surrounding its battery life and performance, and the many build quality complaints, the device still managed to become the staple of smartwatches and the best-selling Wear watch of 2014. It is just beautiful, and no time-line or 7-day battery life will top that for some people. But with Wear’s evolution crawling slowly and Pebble suddenly re-inventing itself with what looks to be the smartest watch yet, are we going to take more notice on what Wear needs?

The capabilities of smartwatches are severely limited. Personally, I only use my watch for notifications and the occasional voice note, reminder and alarm. The hundreds of flappy bird clones or calculator apps mean little to me in this regard. Watchfaces, however, are important as in the end it is a smartwatch, and half the appeal of regular watches come from the diverse and expressive aesthetics. LG’s pretentiously champagne-y commercial could entice those that want a new trendy tech wearable that looks classy, but at the end of the day Pebble nailed the smartwatch better than what Wear has accomplished, and now it’s going for more. LG might surprise us with an undisclosed OS for their LTE Urbane variant, but until we have further details we can’t speculate on that. I see both paradigms as being so polarizing that it may hurt the development of what we want and need on wearables.  And finding the right balance is not just hard, but expensive, and would most likely result in expensive watches. Manufacturers are constrained by these expenses, and every dollar that goes into design adds a fraction of a a dollar to the price. Same goes for specifications and software. Evening them out must be a hard task, but when you see a new watch that entirely focuses on a new design rather than the innovation the platform deeply needs, at the expense of a ridiculous price point, you know they aren’t trying hard enough, or listening.

I don’t want a smartwatch or a smartwatch. I want a smartwatch and I’m sure the market does too. Until someone comes through and gives us just that, I don’t think we’ll be ready for mass adoption.