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Smartwatches won't click with consumers until they grow Google Now--style brains

Jared Newman | Sept. 4, 2013
The tech world's gone gaga for the smartwatch concept, but the real world won't bite until the tech does more than push notifications to your wrist.

Google Now's warnings and alerts are useless if they're buried among a pile of other notifications, or if you've parked your phone is in your pocket or purse. Passbook becomes a cognitive burden when your movie ticket or boarding pass competes for attention with everything else on your phone. And a truly smart smartwatch wouldn't senselessly bombard you with a constant stream of alerts. It would act as a smart assistant that knew when to get your attention, and when to leave you alone.

"It is more subtle, it is more hierarchical in terms of the information it provides," Gould said. "That starts to get to a place where the aesthetic objection can be overcome."

That's not to deny the importance of smartwatch apps. There are lots of ways smartwatches might serve as useful smartphone substitutes—for handling things like NFC-based payments, voice search, dictated messages, fitness tracking, remote media playback, and even security authentication for other computing devices. Features like these will make smartwatches more useful, and some of them are already available on today's watches. But simply mimicking the functionality of a smartphone won't be enough.

"Instead of trying to create Dick Tracy's phone, you're actually just trying to create Dick Tracy's smart assistant," says Avi Greengart, research director of Consumer Devices at Current Analysis.

Google Now? More like Google Later
So we're looking for a smartwatch that can constantly slurp up information and serve it to us at just the right times, preferably on a color touchscreen, preferably sleek, preferably long-lasting, and preferably affordable.

Sorry to be a downer, but we need to keep our expectations in check.

Unless (or until) Google offers a proper interface for watches with tight Google Now integration, hardware makers will have trouble turning their watches into full-blown virtual assistants. And though Samsung may be able to fill in some of the gaps with its Passbook clone, dubbed Samsung Wallet, that service is young and at this point has only a handful of partners.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google still have plenty of work to do on their own virtual assistant technologies.

Google Now is good at predicting information you'll need—data like traffic alerts and weather reports for your upcoming trips—but its support for loyalty cards and boarding passes isn't as broad as Apple's Passbook. For its part, Apple's virtual assistant Siri doesn't behave like Google Now at all. Siri responds to requests for information, but it doesn't try to predict what you need to know. Between the two companies, the makings of a killer, watch-friendly virtual assistant are in place, but the odds of Apple and Google working together are nil, which means they'll need to put all the more time into creating their own systems.


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