In A World Of Smartphones, Where Does The Smartwatch Fit?

I’ve been something of a smartwatch skeptic. To me, smartwatches seemed to be less about providing something useful and more about fulfilling some Dick Tracy fantasy now that technology has finally caught up with Chester Gould’s imagination. The Apple Watch didn’t change my opinion much. Sure, it’s a slick piece of hardware with some clever ideas, I thought, but it didn’t help me better understand why I might want a smartwatch.

Instead, I saw yet another gadget to haul around. I saw a relative lack of focus. I couldn’t help but think, “My iPhone already does all this stuff; why would I want this?

Then I read Ian Parker’s profile of Jony Ive for The New Yorker.

Then I saw this passage:

“When he later saw Google Glass, Ive said, it was evident to him that the face ‘was the wrong place.’ Cook said, ‘We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed.’ He went on, ‘We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has.’ He looked at the Apple Watch on his wrist. ‘This isn’t obnoxious. This isn’t building a barrier between you and me.’ He continued, ‘If I get a notification here, it will tap my wrist’—with silent vibrations. ‘I can casually look and see what’s going on.’”

Then I looked up. A light bulb flicked on in my brain. “Oh!” I exclaimed to myself. I finally “got” it.

The smartwatch is not a replacement for a smartphone. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. And if it tries to replace the phone, it will fail

Instead, the smartwatch is a solution to the inherent rudeness of smartphones. Today, if your phone buzzes in your pocket, your first impulse will likely be to reach into your pocket, tap your sleep/wake button, and see what’s up—even if you’re in a social setting. “I know this is rude,” you tell yourself, “but I better check anyway. This might be important!”

The smartwatch addresses this. Now, instead of puling your phone out of your pocket, if you get a notification, you can satisfy your curioisty, but do so in a manner that’s considered to be less rude. If you interpret someone looking at their watch as being bored, of course, all bets are off. But a glance at your watch is still less disruptive than pulling out your phone.

This is the smartwatch’s fundamental reason for being.

Now, I still have my misgivings about the Apple Watch—and about the implementation of smartwatches in general, really. I wonder about whether Apple is still trying to do too much with the Apple Watch. I wonder if the inclusion of certain features—like the Photos app—dilutes the clarity of purpose the Apple Watch could offer. I think back to a piece Ben Thompson wrote after the Watch’s introduction and wonder if Apple itself isn’t quite sure how the Watch will fit into people’s lives (not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s a topic for another day). We’ll find out soon enough.

The smartwatches that are out there still seem a little too scattershot to me, but at least I now see that there’s a good idea in there somewhere.

Post updated to clarify a couple points.

Nick spends way too much time in front of a computer, so he figures he may as well write about it. He's previously written for IDG's PCWorld and TechHive.