Early December 2014, I bought the Moto 360 with Android Wear. As someone who loves both watches and technology, it seems like a great time to jump into the world of smartwatches, and see if it has evolved beyond the bulky ’80s stuff that has come before. I’ll first give you a concise history of smartwatches, after which I will dive into Wear and the 360 themselves.
I love watches
I love watches. To me, strapping a watch around my wrist in the morning is equal to putting on my pants or socks, and like pants or socks, different occasions necessitate different watches. A bright red watch with a large black-on-white watch face works great in the summer, while cycling in colourful summer clothes. However, at a job interview or when visiting a client, I’m strapping a classic, understated, and elegant metallic watch around my wrist.
Hearing people say that watches are a relic of the past, that they take their phones out of their pocket every time they want to, you know, check the time, sounds as alien to me as someone saying shoes are a relic of the past, that they use their car to keep their feet clean and proper. There are so many situations in which I would not want to take my phone out of my pocket because it would be rude, inconsiderate, or downright dangerous, that I can’t ever imagine not wearing a watch.
Hearing people say that having a multitude of watches so that I have a watch to fit specific occasions or activities is vain and stupid, sounds as alien to me as someone saying having different kinds of clothes for different occasions or activities is vain and stupid. It’s great if you want show up at a serious job interview wearing sandals, shorts, and a fanny pack, but most do not. It’s great if you want to work out in a fine Italian tailored suit, but most do not.
All this to illustrate that I consider a watch an indispensable piece of clothing. And while I would never think less of a person for not wearing a watch, I do find it odd that many people do not own one at all, let alone wear one.
Watches need not be expensive. I have seven or eight watches right now, and save for the subject of this article, none of them cost more than about â‚¬200. Many of you will consider this expensive anyway – only to then pull out the latest iPhone that you paid several thousand euros for (don’t forget the contract) – only to pay another batch of several thousand euros one or two years later. We all have our indulgences.
All this being said, with the large technology companies making a move on the watch market, I obviously could not stand on the sideline. Ever since it became clear that both Apple and Google were to tackle the watch market, I’ve kept a close eye on their offerings. With most of the cards on the table, I decided to take the plunge and buy the most watch-like smartwatch on the market at the time: the Moto 360.
A concise history of the smartwatch
As always in my reviews, I first want to dive into the history of the product or product category I’m reviewing, to set the stage and add some much-needed historical perspective to an industry that moves so fast that it systematically forgets what came before. Some of you may be surprised to learn just how far back the history of smartwatches goes.
The title of first smartwatch goes to the Pulsar NL C01, although you do have to stretch the imagination a bit to call the NL C01 a smartwatch. Released in 1982, it was a digital watch that had the ability to store a whopping 24 digits in its memory. I say “stretch” because just having user-programmable memory doesn’t really turn it into what I personally would consider a smartwatch – we need a watch with a proper processor for that, so you can do actual computing.
While I’m sure there are countless other candidates (if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a lot of technology and products get lost over time), the Seiko Data-2000 is generally considered to be the first smartwatch. Released in 1983, it has limited PDA-like functionality, and sports a fancy external keyboard for data entry, which transmits its data to the watch using some interesting technology, as described by Pocket Calculator Show:
This is interesting part: data is transmitted via â€œelectromagnetic couplingâ€. There’s a small metal loop in the watch and another in the keyboard. Current flows through the loops, turning each into a magnet. Communication occurs via a series of magnetic pulses from each side. Data is transferred (2,048 bits/second with a ~32 KHz carrier frequency) and the watch receives the data for storage.
What’s interesting is that if you squint a bit and hop up and down, this setup – simple watch with an external device for input – isn’t all that different from the smartwatches Google, Apple, etc. are trying to convince us to buy today. The difference, of course, is that we don’t have a separate keyboard for it, but use our smartphone. You could also buy a more expensive version of the keyboard, which included a spool printer and the ability to install application packs (like Microsoft BASIC).
Seiko released several similar watches over the years, but the RC-1000 (or Wrist Terminal) deserves a mention because unlike the other models, it didn’t come with a keyboard or external dock; it had an RS232C port so you could hook it up to your Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM PC, TRS-80, and similar computers of its era. It was the first of Seiko’s line to do so, and subsequent Seiko computer watches would follow suit.
The next step would be to move beyond mere PDA-like functionality, and include some form of wireless connectivity to transmit data to the watch. Seiko was, again, one of the first, with the Seiko Receptor, which is essentially a pager in watch form. At the time of its introduction, mid-1990, The New York Times wrote:
The new wristwatch pager translates radio waves into written messages up to 16 characters long. Many United States pager companies already provide similar services for beepers, but these devices are not contained in a wristwatch. The wristwatch pager, which is manufactured by the Seiko Epson Company, a Hattori Seiko subsidiary, can store up to eight messages.
We’re hitting the ’90s now, and as with so many other technologies that many think are new, the smartwatch is a very old concept that is by no means new, revolutionary, or earth-shattering. Many traditional watch makers have made smartwatches before, but generally, the limiting factor, as always, is the then-current state of technology. Starting from the early ’90s onwards, we’re going to see the involvement of technology companies in this space, and familiar names begin to pop up – Microsoft, Linux, Palm (I manage to cram Palm into just about any article). I’m leaving chronology behind a bit here.
First, Microsoft. As with pocket computing (PocketPC, Windows Mobile) and tablets (Windows for Pen Computing, Microsoft Tablet PC), smartwatches, too, were an area in which Microsoft clearly saw the potential ahead of everyone else. However, also like the aforementioned, Microsoft lacked the ability to execute in a way that appealed to a wider audience. Many of you are familiar with Microsoft’s SPOT, but that wasn’t the company’s first foray into watches.
A decade before SPOT, in 1994, Timex introduced the Timex Datalink line of smartwatches, which were co-developed with Microsoft. Sporting both the Timex and Microsoft logos, these smartwatches were very interesting from a technological standpoint in that they used an optical sensor and flashes on your CRT display to transfer information. Your computer screen would display a series of flashing horizontal bars which the sensor on the watch would pick up. Since LCD displays work differently from CRTs, Timex later introduced an LED accessory to simulate this behaviour.
The Datalink line eventually moved to USB, and Timex even released an SDK so you could write applications for the watch. These applications had to be written in assembly, and considering the archaic displays of these watches, functionality is limited. Timex also worked together with Motorola on Beepwear, Datalink watches with beeper and pager functionality.
After Datalink, Microsoft moved it up a notch with its SPOT initiative. SPOT is an acronym for Smart Personal Object Technology, and was meant to make all kinds of devices “smart” by connecting them to Microsoft’s MSN direct network, which transmitted data using FM radio technology. This technology, dubbed DirectBand by Microsoft, was eventually shut down on 31 December, 2011. SPOT watches were sold between 2004 and 2008, but only in the United States (and possibly Canada).
The Linux world jumped onto smartwatches as well. From 1998 onwards, Steve Mann built a smartwatch running Linux, which could do videoconferencing and had a number of other features. It had a 24 bit display at 640×480, and while it isn’t exactly pretty, it’s still quite an amazing prototype that bridges the gap between the dot-matrix displays of the ’80s and early ’90s and the full-colour, regular displays we use today.
Around the same timeframe, IBM experimented with Linux-based smartwatches as well, in cooperation with watchmaker Citizen. Several models were made, with touch panels, fingerprint sensors, Bluetooth, and so on. They ran Linux 2.4 at the time, with Microwindows (here’s a video of this one) or X11R6. Some models even sported a relatively high-resolution OLED display.
Moving on, Palm is no stranger to smartwatches either. In 1999, Donald Brewer, engineer at Fossil (one of my favourite brands – I’ve owned countless Fossil watches over the years), came up with the idea of combining the PDA and watch. After acquiring a read-only license for Palm OS, Brewer set to work to make it happen. Sadly, his first attempts were too big and bulky, but after several years of development, and cooperation with Palm, Flextronics and Motorola, Fossil managed to cram a full Palm PDA into a watch. It had a 33Mhz Dragonball processor, 2MB of RAM, 2MB of storage space, and ran the full Palm OS 4.1.
As for the display – it required a lot of effort, but a company from Arizona, Three-Five Systems, managed to shrink a 160×160 display (the minimum Palm could run on without having to rewrite large parts of the operating system) to a size small enough so that it could be used on a watch. The end result of these specifications is that the watch ran the full Palm OS, and could run any regular Palm OS application. Various models were sold between 2003 and 2005, but they were never a huge success.
All of these examples were far too ambitious for the then-current level of technology, and such, they were often bulky, uncomfortable, unattractive, and finicky to use. Consequently, the concept of the smartwatch never had any mass-market appeal. The first smartwatch to gain a little bit of traction – although certainly not mass-market appeal – was the Pebble.
Not entirely unsurprisingly, the Pebble is the first of these lines of smartwatches to emerge after the smartphone explosion caused by the iPhone and later on by Android. Now that virtually everyone had a powerful computer in their pockets, smartwatches no longer needed to do all the heavy lifting by themselves, and could rely on the smartphone they’re paired with.
The Pebble is one of the first modern smartwatches. It sports a black and white e-paper display, several sensors, and relies on an iOS or Android smartphone for most of its functionality. The Pebble operating system is based on the FreeRTOS kernel, and aside from showing notifications from your phone, allows you to run Pebble applications in a sandboxed environment on the watch. It uses buttons for input (no touch), but the relatively lightweight nature of its software and display gives it a more reasonable battery life. The original Pebble is made out plastic, but the company later added a steel version as well.
Just how big of a success the Pebble has really been remains to be seen – the company announced in March 2014 that it had sold 400000 watches, which is a fantastic achievement for such a young company, but hardly a revolution or indicative of mass-market appeal beyond the kind of people that read sites like OSNews.
And this brings us to the current state of this nascent market that could still go either way. It can be the next big revolution, it can be stillborn, or somewhere in between. The first big technology company to tackle the modern smartwatch is Google, and the Moto 360 with Android Wear is the company’s poster child. The million – or possible billion – dollar question: is the Moto 360 specifically, and Android Wear in general, the product that will kickstart the smartwatch revolution?
I’m going to do something very unusual, and give you the answer right away.
No, it will not. Let me explain why.