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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 6

The Case against Smartwatches

You can now control your phone from your wrist. But why would you ever want to?
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Credit: Lily Padula

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Electronics companies sometimes seem like a pack of overcaffeinated lemmings. They all bolt as a herd, en masse, without realizing that nobody is leading them.

That's why the industry keeps spending so many billions on tech products that nobody buys. We were supposed to want to surf the Web on our TV sets. We were supposed to want our refrigerators connected to the Internet. Apparently “if you build it, they will come” doesn't always apply to gadgets.

Which brings us to smartwatches.

You can't blame the tech companies for thinking of smartwatches. The march of progress has always meant smaller and smaller machines. We can now cram storage, processors, sensors and wireless features into a matchbook-sized package. Wouldn't it be cool to strap it onto your wrist?

Well, yes and no.

First of all, miniaturization hasn't marched on enough. Smartwatches are still too bulky; the Samsung Galaxy Gear watches, versions 1 and 2, are so chunky, they make you stand lopsided.

That's a particular problem in watches because they are supposed to be fashion. They're on your body for looks. The first smartwatches seem to miss that point.

The second problem is that most smart watches depend on a companion smartphone. It's the phone that receives your text messages, calls and e-mails and sends them to your wrist.

On one hand, you can see who's trying to reach you without having to extract your phone from your pocket or purse. And you feel the watch's vibration, so you don't miss the incoming communication in a noisy place.

But Samsung's Gear watches work only with certain Samsung phone models; Apple's rumored smartwatch will, of course, work only with an iPhone. And watches are fashion, remember? Without freedom of choice, you don't have much range of expression. So there goes fashion.

The biggest problem, though, is that these first smartwatches don't know what they want to be. We know that putting a computer on your wrist is possible—but nobody's convincingly answered the question, “Why should I?”

What problems do a smartwatch solve that haven't already been solved by the smartphone? The notification-of-calls-and-texts thing: yes, that's useful.

The apps thing: On the Pebble watch—compatible with iPhone and Android—as well as on Sony's and Samsung's watches, you can install tiny apps. They're stripped-down versions of the apps you can already get on your phone. Not convincing.

The making-calls-on-your-wrist thing: I'm not so sure. If you're going to hold your wrist up to your ear to talk, why not just hold your phone? The usual answer is, “Because the watch lets you have both hands free while you're driving.” But as you know, you shouldn't be making calls at all while you're driving.

The taking-pictures-with-a-hidden-lens-on-the-wristband thing: Does the world really need another way to be a creep?

Here's one thing that really does make tremendous sense: fitness tracking. All those Fitbit and Jawbone UP bands measure your activity and sleep in truly enlightening, habit-changing ways. Those aren't watches—they're glorified pedometers—but they really work, and they're popular.

That, surely, is why Samsung's new Gear Fit watch includes fitness monitors and why Apple has been hiring engineers from Nike.

In other words, lest you think I'm just a knee-jerk crab apple, I do believe that smartwatches are coming. Google has announced an Android operating system just for watches, and Apple entering the field will trigger a gigantic wave of competitors. Somebody will figure out what is genuinely useful about having a screen on your wrist—and make sure that it's small and good-looking enough that you'd want to wear it.

And that should be enough to tide us over—until we implant our computers inside our heads.

This article was originally published with the title "Smart Watches Flunk Out."

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