To wearable, or not to wearable?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
To wearable, or not to wearable?
If 2014 was the dawn of wearables in the sense that it represents the largest inroads made for a new product category, then I hope 2015 will be the year that really prompts me to really go all-in with the technology. As much I like what it all does so far, I have not kept any of the new “smart” wearables on my wrist for longer than a couple weeks.

There is no shortage of wearable gear out there, and really what I’m writing about here is the latest crop of smartwatches, most of which run on Android Wear. In the grand scheme, I know it is but a portion of what many of us may use, be it Jawbone’s UP, or Fitbit, or Samsung’s Tizen powered Galaxy Gear, and for me, it really comes down to a single issue. As I thought about that single issue though, I examined other factors that leave me feeling pensive about what lies ahead.

I’m part of the generation that grew up wearing regular wrist watches, so I have no problems with wearing something on my wrist. What really numbed me to the whole experience was the need for daily charging.

When it comes to Android Wear, I was actually pretty impressed with the functionality overall, especially for what was ostensibly a first run for the platform this past summer. Having used the LG G Watch and the Moto 360, I liked the design of the 360, but was wholly unimpressed with its performance. Maybe the unit I had was buggy, but it was evident to me up and down that the hardware was not up to the task at hand.

There are plenty of choices in the Android Wear line-up, but I don’t need to try them all because the experience is going to be identical from a user standpoint. The Apple Watch will certainly bring something new to the table. The Pebble is an established and reliable product, but it is a bit too utilitarian for my taste. Whatever shall I do?

Take it off, put it on - daily

I know I can’t be the only one that finds nightly recharging an irritation. I know we do the same thing with our smartphones, but that is a whole different appliance. My smartphone is my nerve center of mobile communications. The argument could be made that without it, any high-tech wearable is useless in carrying out its task, so in exchange for pretty much managing my entire digital identity (more on that later), I am willing to keep the battery juiced.

For me, it’s not the fact that there’s another device to plug in, it’s the frequency. For the generation that grew up with watches, we’re used to tossing in a battery and forgetting about it for a couple years, a year at worst, sometimes five years or longer. For those that have the snazzy perpetual-motion watches, there’s no battery at all, and they still keep time on par with the US Naval Observatory’s Atomic Clock.

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To their credit, many of the manufacturers have made charging a non-micro USB charging affair, though Motorola’s Moto 360 is probably the most handsome execution of the idea. Sony, for reasons unknown has chosen the ol' plug-it-in approach with the Smartwatch 3. None of these methods would matter to me if didn’t have to go through the exercise on a daily basis though.

That is the single most pressing reason why I am not going to bother bringing any of my Android Wear stuff to CES next month because it is just one more cable, one more charger, and one more item that I will either forget to use, or just as bad, I will end up leaving it at the hotel where I then have to chase it down to have it sent home, or spend some money to replace the part.  Of course, the smartwatch won't have enough battery life to stay "on" while the replacement is en route either.

Middle-of-the-road saturation – at a price

With few exceptions (like the Pebble), the bang-for-the-buck on this latest generation of technology is not delivering on the value proposition – yet. As impressive as the cosmetic appearance of some of these devices, does anyone expect them to hold up the way most active lifestyle devices are made today?

Armed with a smartphone, and given the choice to spend $200 or more on a smartwatch, or the same amount on a more traditional timepiece, which one delivers more value? I know any answer to that question is purely subjective, but for half the money there are connected and non-connected devices out there that excel at performing their primary purpose, and that is to tell the time.

Another thing is how some of the existing crop of wearables are already semi-smart and augment information our smartphones do not provide. Casio, Timex, Suunto, and other "watch makers," all manufacture highly intelligent wrist computers that do not need to be plugged in on a daily basis. This generation of “smartwatches” feels like a wide array of compromises, middle-of-the-road overall quality and expensive accessories (seriously, $80 for a metal band from Motorola?).

Everything in its place

There are quite a few features I like about wearables as they function today. When I am driving and using turn-by-turn navigation, I like how the information would appear on the watch. A quick turn of the wrist while my hand is on top of the steering wheel, is a great way to not be distracted by my smartphone while in the car.

Other notifications were less useful to me, however. Some of this is simply due to the level of development. The other part is the need for voice commands in interaction. Now, for anyone that has viewed my hands-on videos on PhoneArena, you know I am not a man of few words, I am not so quiet, and I am definitely not shy. I will admit though, that I feel weird talking to my computers, and while I am a fairly outspoken guy, I do not feel the need to transmit my voice for all to hear while I talk to a watch. Throw in the reality that there is a reasonable chance that Google Now is going to misunderstand what I say, and then I have to repeat myself, even louder (not that I have to be louder, but we all do that anyway).

There is a time, and a place for everything, and my voice does need to be within earshot of everyone, everywhere, all the time.

It’s not about the FUD of “digital identity”

We live in an era of more than simply, “I think, therefore I am.” Gone are the times of when we were little more than what we ate, and who we associated with. The internet has enabled another layer, our “digital identity.” The devices we use and the services we consume online all play a part in a shaping a commercial profile as well as our digital self.

Of course, I am not referring to digital identity in the context of those “keyboard rangers” that troll online and act tough when in reality they are choking down Little Debbie snack cakes and sleeves of Pringles potato chips. I’m talking about the everyday person that uses social media, maybe uses Google Wallet or Apple Pay, buys and manages things online, and the like.

Whether we like it or not, the onus is already on us to be active managers in our digital identity, and wearables do very little to change that basic fact. Information gets more granular, but it is a two-way street, and companies like Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, et al, have a vested interest in being good stewards of this information that flows through their infrastructure.

Yes, I know the information gets shared and sold for commercial means, but that's okay with me because it actually prevents me from seeing totally superficial advertisements for products that will make no impression.  If I'm going to be targeted for marketing, at least keep it interesting. In short, I do not worry about “great conspiracy theories” because I endeavor to be a responsible user of this technology. I’m certain I am less than perfect in that effort, but I think I'm ahead of the curve since I’ve never taken a duck-face selfie or let rip a drunken rant on Facebook to be used as a special feature in someone else's online critique.

Those really concerned about data mining need to look no further than their grocery shopping cards and their credit cards.  Those are the grand-daddies of data mining and information dissemination, knowing what you buy, where you buy it, when you buy it, and how often you buy it.  Location data?  Big deal.  My grocer and credit card company knows how much milk I drink regardless of whether I pick up a cell phone or wearable.

Technology is the servant

I love using mobile technology extensively, and am an early adopter with a lot of products.  On the days I find myself not using it for one reason or another, I don't particularly miss it.  I can dive back into Android Wear or other tech anytime, but the pinnacle of engagement in mobile still remains with the smartphone, and that is where I think it will be for the foreseeable future.

For wearables, my preference for now seems to be for something that is not simply a mirror of my smartphone, but a tool that augments discrete pieces of information. I have no doubts that Android Wear is on track to deliver in this respect, but for now, the deal breaker for me is battery life. I do not mind catering to the battery needs of my smartphone on a daily basis, but I do mind slaving to the needs of my smartwatch because it is not a critical component of actively managing my communication requirements.

What is a reasonable expectation for battery performance? My wish list has it pegged at about a month, or longer. Battery advances have been so incremental that achieving the one month goal right now would mean giving up a lot of functionality. In a year or two, I have no trouble seeing technology reaching that threshold.  To that point however, once that performance benchmark is met, I still believe that the smartwatch feature set be anchored in being a mirror of our smartphones first.  I hope that I am proven wrong in that respect.

Form, function, and fashion – pick two

I am not someone that has a different watch for every outfit, but those people exist, and that is another consideration with wearables. As a fashion statement, the current crop of wearables (Android Wear or not) don’t make much of one. They are generally bulky and not very elegant.  For a lot of traditional timepieces, particularly men’s designs, the size of the watch is often associated with ultra-durability, or some outlandish expression of luxury (with a big price tag to match its big size).

On the other end of that spectrum, designs that fit a woman’s sense of fashion, the current selection of wearables is practically nonexistent. Opening Ceremony has a small line of Intel-powered MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory) bracelets. They cost $500, and are available for pre-order only with a delivery sometime between January and February. The price tag also includes two years of AT&T service.

Smartwatches are at a point where there is a sort of "iron triangle," a term I am borrowing from the debate over healthcare in the United States.  The mantra was (and is), "Access, cost, and quality, pick two."  The idea being that it is indeed possible to dramatically improve one or even two of those facets of healthcare, but at the expense of one.  Smartwatches are a bit like that too.  Better battery life can be had at the expense of function.  Fashion can be had at the expense of affordability.  We can find the majority of features we want, but as yet, I don't think any single product is a complete, comprehensive package.

If you want a reasonably slim, unassuming smartwatch, right now, your best bet is probably a Pebble. If you want to look like you belong on the red carpet, the MICA will work. If you want something that will endure rigors of an active lifestyle, you have to look beyond Android Wear or Pebble, and get something like the Casio or Suunto mentioned here.

To wear or not to wear?

Like anything still in its early adoption phase, there are compromises to be made. Android Wear, Pebble, do not require that we give up a lot in terms of every day usability. I expect the Apple Watch will excel at its intended task as well.

In the traditional sense, wearables have been about bringing instant and relevant pieces of information to bear, simply by holding up your arm. Regular wristwatches and their largely singular purpose make that an easy task. For those enhanced sport watches, or connected pieces, the other functions of notifications, altitude, heart-rate, or whatever, are secondary.

This new generation of smartwatches and other wearables must build beyond that, and be able to convey information in a manner that is more than just a truncated message, with an ellipses at the end which only drive us to use the smartphone anyway. If I’m destined to use the smartphone, I choose not to wear, even though I want to.

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