Thursday, 16 April 2015

When is a smart watch not a smart watch?

Hamilton Railway watch

A Short History Lesson of the Watch

The first time pieces to be carried by a person were made in the 15th century in the German cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg.  These early time pieces addressed the age old question man had struggled with since the sun went behind a cloud and messed up their sundial. That question is, “what time is it?”

These early time pieces were driven by a main spring and were so inefficient they had to be charged (wound) twice a day.

In due course, these time pieces evolved to to include advances like perpetual movement, being charged (wound) by the motion of your body.  With the waistcoat falling out of fashion, the watch moved from your pocket onto your wrist.

Evolution came slowly but surely, until we are where we are today.  We now have robust multi-function watches, powered by solar energy, run by microcomputers, corrected to the nearest millisecond by satellite and can tell the time anywhere in the world as well as act as a slide rule, GPS, altimeter, stop watch, etc.

The “Smart” Watch

In what universe is this attractive

Then, along comes the almighty Smart Phone Makers, who tell us they will redefine the watch on our wrist to make it a truly useful device. Are they trying to be ironic?

A short history lesson of the Smart Watch

During the 1980s, Casio marketed the successful line of "computer watches", in addition to its calculator watches. Most notable, was the Casio DataBank series.  The RC-1000 Wrist Terminal, released in 1984 (George Orwell anyone?), was the first Seiko model to talk to a computer. The Timex Datalink product line was introduced in 1994. The early Timex Datalink watches had a wireless data transfer mode to communicate with a PC to sync appointments and contacts created with Microsoft Schedule+ (pre-Outlook program) and so on.

Today, we have a couple dozen manufacturers marketing watches that are claimed to be "smart".  They do things like display the time, vibrate when you get a call, show caller ID, show a map, answer a call and record data from your exercise regime.  Except for one notable exception, the Pebble, most need to be charged once a day (echoes of the 15th century, anyone?).

So, I must ask the question, is there a need for a remote display on your wrist that buzzes when a distant acquaintance posts a picture of their baby’s diaper on Facebook?  Is it more polite to check your wrist, rather than your phone, to see the goings on in your virtual world?  The answer, is that it most certainly is not.  If you check your phone, you are being moderately disengaged, when you are looking at your wrist you are being plain bloody rude. You are saying "My time is precious and you are wasting it".  (Editors note: Body language is the key indicator of rudeness in social and business interaction. Breaking eye contact is considered rude in most cultures.)

So who will buy a Smart Watch?

$25 each

This is an interesting question and luckily we have a ready answer.  The data services company “Owler” found that zero percent of 1000 engineers plan to buy an Apple watch and not one of them thought the watch was worth the price.  The same survey found that of 8000 marketing people 11% said they would buy the watch and about half reckon the price is right.  Sounds about right!
However I have no doubt that along with the marketing lovelies, there will also be hoards of technology fans who will desire another gadget, so robust sales are most likely assured and good luck to them, it's their money.   

Do I hate Technology?

It's true that I dislike the devices being sold as Smart Watches. Am I a Luddite, railing against the relentless forward motion of technology? Do I fear progress and want to cling to my old fashioned watch with all its complicated moving parts?  Am I not cool and just don’t get it?

Well, the truth is I am not cool, but I love technology. All sorts of technology. Smart Phones, petrol engines, desktop computers, engine management systems, PLC control systems. I have built dozens of computer systems just for a laugh. I know what multi-core CPUs, DRAM and multi-threading are, and I even have qualifications to prove it! Good for me!

So why do I dislike these Smart Watch Gadgets?  Because they are a sham, made from cheap off the shelf components and add nothing new to technology.  They are intrusive, in an already intrusive world. You can stick the phone in your pocket and ignore it; you can’t ignore something buzzing on your wrist every ten seconds.  Most of these smart watches are slave devices that don’t work unless they are connected to a phone and what they do can be done far better by a large screen phone.  The watch communicates with the phone base station via Bluetooth.  Bluetooth is not secure and should be switched off when not in use. Okay, let’s ignore that as we do with so much else that we can’t see.
But let me tell you the main reason for my disappointment: the battery life.  The biggest companies in the world are designing these things with running times worse than time pieces from hundreds of years ago.  If manufacturers wanted to push the boundaries of the basic time piece, they could at least have matched its endurance. Why not design better batteries, along with hybrid auto-winders and combine that with solar panel wristbands. You know, innovation of some description.

Fitness and Health Apps

"Oh," I hear you say, "what about all the health benefits and fitness tracking?". Before you even strap on an electronic fitness device, read this. If you are okay with health and fitness data being downloaded from your device and resold to data brokers, then please, rock on.  You might get lower premiums on your health insurance, or then again you may get higher premiums on your health insurance. It may even make no difference, but the point is it is intrusive in a creepy Orwellian way and makes me viscerally dislike the ethics behind the marketing.
My Watch, it's quite smart

If the manufacturers of these devices were straight with consumers and said, "Hey guys, we are selling an expensive fashion bracelet that you charge everyday, it lights up and buzzes now and then.  If you buy it, you will be seen to be modern and cool. It will be out of date in a year or two, but don't worry, by then we will have something better.", I would be cheering from the sidelines because the truth is being told and I am sure the gadget lovers and marketers would still buy it (and once again,good luck to them it's their money).

The current crop of wristbands connected to a phone is a marketing ploy which promises a lot, but will deliver no real benefit to the user.  They will, however, deliver great benefit to the companies that collect and resell personal data.  

There is a great future for bio-tech, it is an absolute certainty that tech will be placed onto and eventually into our bodies. What about smart retinal implants, or wrist bands collecting biometrics? What about biotech injected into the body to regulate blood sugar or fat absorption?

Technology designed to augment our capabilities will not come from a fashion wristband, but more likely in the form of nanotechnology that works from the inside to promote healing, retard aging and maintain health.

I have no doubt that watches connected to phones will be a success and probably even become useful, but are they the future of Body meets Tech? 

Most definitely not.

Q: So, when is a smart watch not a smart watch?

A: When it's a stupid watch.