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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.

One related point: Though smartwatches with NFC technology could someday allow you to pay for items with a wrist tap on a payment terminal, retail stores haven't widely adopted the technology. NFC's failure to launch is a whole other story, but it's been a challenge for tech companies to get into the game due to competing interests among wireless carriers and payment providers.

Beauty versus battery
A successful smartwatch would need to solve more than just software issues, though.

The crucial hurdle for smartwatch makers is battery life. Teardowns of current devices like Pebble and Sony's SmartWatch reveal that the battery hogs a lot of space inside. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve multiple days of battery life on these devices without some sort of compromise, and current smartphones aren't exactly sleek and stylish.

Pebble opted for a low-power, black-and-white screen to save power. Sony's SmartWatch 2 uses a transflective LCD with less-than-vibrant color. Samsung will reportedly use an (inflexible) OLED screen in its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and the watch's build will likely be just as bulky as the Pebble's. And while the ramifications for battery life are unconfirmed, a report by AmongTech claims that the Galaxy Gear will last for only 10 hours on a charge.

Therein lies the problem for a company like Apple: Should it push forward with a clunkier watch that has a gorgeous display, and hope that people are willing to recharge it every night? Or should it opt for a less attractive screen and longer battery life? Or should it simply wait until more-power-efficient technology is available? Maybe that's one of the "things to solve" with wearables that Apple CEO Tim Cook has alluded to.

Bruce Tognazzini, a partner at the user-experience-oriented Nielsen Norman Group, points out that Apple holds a patent on wireless charging that can power devices through the air. But unless Apple can offer that technology in the near future, the company may have to make a tough decision between desirable battery life and beautiful color display.

"I certainly would not be particularly interested in a watch that I had to take off every night, but I don't think it would kill the market," Tognazzini says. "I just think it's a big trade-off."

No one watch to rule them all—yet
Predicting future sales of tech products is always risky, and it's even trickier in the case of wearable technology. But consider this bit of perspective from Canalys: The research firm expects smartwatch shipments to jump from 500,000 units this year to 5 million next year, "as a new generation of devices from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and others are launched."


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