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Smartwatches and wearable technology dominate CES 2014 – time for Apple to step in?

With smartwatches and wearable technology creating the biggest buzz at CES 2014, Dean Johnson looks at new devices like the Galaxy Gear, Pebble and Neptune Pine and asks whether they stand up to scrutiny, and whether it's time for Apple to release the iWatch.

Wearable tech

Dean Johnson, Brandwidth Innovation Lab

Apple Talk with Dean Johnson

I know too much. I’m not showing off; I’m just letting you know that I can’t be specific about the future of wearable technology when I’m already helping to shape it. That doesn’t mean I can’t let a few things slip and throw in the odd digital hand grenade.

So, smartwatches… we all need one of those, right? Well, let’s consider the market first. The number of people using watches is falling as more time-conscious individuals flick their smartphone screens on to check multiple updates.

How do manufacturers convince a tech-savvy audience to invest in a new timepiece? Why should they buy yet another device when their phone provides everything they need? Samsung, Pebble Technology and the like would lead us to believe that we need our phone’s functionality replicated on a much smaller screen, with access to key information and functionality at the flick of a wrist. They’re missing the point.

It’s easy to see why many tech giants (and startups) are scrabbling to fill the smartwatch product gap. One sniff of an Apple tech rumour and everyone wants to be the first to market. But first isn’t always best, and some offerings even fail to provide the minimum requirement for a watch.

Technology should add value, so if your device doesn’t show the time without you having to press a button (like the i’m Watch), it’s not as good as a conventional watch. One of the benefits over a smartphone should be the at-a-glance display, so no data, no win. Also, a watch should provide the minimum level of info (the time) for all 24 hours. If the battery keels over before you do, that’s another fail.

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, Sony’s SmartWatch 2 and Qualcomm’s Toq all promise to cram multiple features into a relatively small device. However, the prize for most ridiculous smartwatch goes to the Neptune Pine. This wrist-bound lump of gadgetry makes me angry to the point of shouting at my screen with the jaw-dropping lack of understanding of the job in hand.

Neptune PineThe Pine claims to replace your smartphone by offering voice calls, video chat and games. It doesn’t need replacing! The Pine is huge – no wonder all the guys in the Kickstarter video have their sleeves rolled up. One reviewer has the nerve to say “the company deserves praise for managing to pack so much into a tiny device without sacrificing aesthetics.” And so to Apple…

Why do people buy watches? I’ve already established a need to tell the time at a glance. The connected interpretation of this is to display status updates such as incoming email, text and social network notifications, alongside iBeacon proximity alerts. That’s all easily achieved with a digital display but how do you address the other key reason for a watch purchase – aesthetics?

A smartphone makes a personal statement if you’re an early adopter but it is essentially a workhorse, a device to serve a purpose. An iPhone only allows for a certain level of personalisation through 5c and 5s colour choices or a case. Imagine a beautifully designed watch, featuring seamless strap and screen integration, and then add a layer of digital personality to match your mood, your clothes or your interests.

It’s no coincidence that Apple recruited a number of important individuals from the fashion industry in 2013. The competition has focused on the gadgetry rather than the humans wearing the kit, while Apple is doing what it does best – making something we actually want rather than need.

The countdown is on. The watch is about to get sexy again.

Wearable tech