Why haven't smartwatches caught on?

Though it (arguably) might come in last place at the Innovative Smartwatch Naming Awards, LG’s Watch W7 – announced earlier this week – did attempt to do something novel. By marrying physical fingers with a digital display, the Watch W7 was intended to be the power couple that ties together the best of the digital world and delivers it to the wrists of analogue enthusiasts.

Instead, the Watch W7 has been much maligned for its design – and for the fact that users would need to press a side-mounted button to level the fingers to see the display in the first place.

All that being said and done, I feel the Watch W7 is a punctuation point for the consumer technology industry – a note for future reference telling us that, well, perhaps we haven’t quite figured out what we want from smartwatches just yet.

Globally, smartwatch sales have ramped up over the past few years – and while Apple (unsurprisingly) might own the lion’s share of the market thanks to the Apple Watch Series 1 through 4, we’ve arguably yet to see a smartwatch product harness the same brand power that many major smartphones do.

That’s a surprising statement to make. Throwing it back to 2014, the stage seemed set for a massive showdown in the smartwatch world – with the likes of the Apple Watch set to tackle the Android hordes (perhaps most recognizably led by the Moto 360 at the time.)

While an estimated figure of 141 million smartwatch sales might sound like we’re heading north, comparing that against a reported 1536 million smartphone sales indicates that we haven’t yet seen a breakout product (or suite of products) that can do for our wrist what our phones do for our pockets.

A lack of utility

Personally, I don’t wear a watch – whether it be analog or smart. I’ve grown used to checking the time (when need be) on my phone, and I personally don’t have much need nor want for jewelry.

However, the fact that we don’t yet have a wrist-worn product that is indispensable is telling. Chiefly, smartwatches today focus on two major aspects – fitness tracking or serving up notifications – and those are two functions that have been best served by two completely different products.

Smartwatches exist in the awkward space of being an accessory, and not a necessity. While Google’s Wear OS and Apple’s watchOS have both introduced interesting features, neither has truly focused on delivering utility – that is, a slate of features that exist in isolation and can’t be replicated elsewhere.

The challenge here is that few have dared to re-envision just what a watch is.

Expense versus affordability

While some manufacturers have paired smartphones and smartwatches together at sale, in most cases smartwatches are just too expensive. In a luxury market where premium brands shift double digits on design and material value alone, the most notable failure in this space was (arguably) the original Apple Watch Edition – a gold behemoth that failed to tow its weight $10,000 USD price tag.

In emerging markets, the budget through mid-range is a major arena for even the biggest brands – and this is an area which we have yet to see smartwatches meaningfully compete in. While there are certainly affordable smartwatches, few exist with the backing of sizable brand-power and, at worst, offer a lackluster delivery of some basic features.

Smartwatches, chiefly, have been obliterated at the bottom end by another noteworthy challenger…

Fitness trackers

While many major consumer technology brands have committed to offering a smartwatch, few have been able to resist the allure of fitness trackers – which are far more affordable to produce, sell, and ultimately market.

The awkward factor is that consumers have flocked to purchase fitness trackers themselves at the expense of smartwatches – with global sales of the former edging closer to 200 million per year.

Given their affordability, smaller form factor, and the uptake in major insurance services leveraging them for monitoring purposes, fitness trackers have – for better or worse – become the backbone of the smartwatch realm. Unfortunately, in this case, that backbone fails to support a wider industry, and excels in capturing consumers for years before they’re ready to make a sizeable upgrade to a new product.

Design

It’s time to point out (perhaps) the biggest factor crippling the smartwatch industry – no one’s carved out a great design.

Sure, the likes of premium brands such as Tissot have cultivated connected offerings, and the Apple Watch Series 4 might be beautiful thanks to its larger screen – but have any of these products truly offered style and substance?

LG’s Watch W7 is perhaps a glaring declaration that, frankly, we haven’t quite figured out what we want from smartwatches. Should we adopt always-on displays? Are mechanical fingers needed? Can any smartwatch truly survive with a massive profile on anyone’s wrist?

Until smartwatches themselves are both slimmer and more svelte, we may struggle to surpass the sexy profile of a fitness tracker.

So, what do we really need for smartwatches to take off?

It might sound contrived, but smartwatches need their iPhone moment.

While smartphones existed before the iPhone, it wasn’t until Apple demoed its take that we developed, iterated, and proliferated a worldwide industry that is growing until this day – and while Apple may not be the company to do so, we await a firm that can radically envision what a smartwatch can do.

The game might be simple. A great smartwatch would need a simple focus, an elegant use case, a slim design, and an appealing price tag – and perhaps most bizzarely, it might have little to do with telling the time.

Some interesting projects linger on. Lenovo is pushing ahead with form-shifting wearable technology, while other firms such as LG continue to trial rollable OLED technology. The right product might lie on the horizon, but we arguably haven’t seen it just yet.


The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars film to leave me with mixed feelings

Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, is the first Star Wars film to see me exit the cinema without a clear sense of the saga.

I think Star Wars hews towards being a generally accessible film franchise for a number of significant reasons. Among them, there’s the powerful blend of mythology with science, a deep resonance with family and conflict, and a rhythmic construction that propels each segment of the saga. Walking into The Last Jedi, I was excited and hopeful to see director Rian Johnson’s take on a galaxy far, far away.

Walking out of the cinema, however, my thoughts and feelings were mixed – and that’s significant, as despite Star Wars’ proclivity for controversial sequels and faltering additions, I’ve always enjoyed new entries in the saga.

It’s taken me more than a day to summarize my feelings on The Last Jedi. That’s because, quite simply, this a movie where spontaneity reigns, where the unexpected is common, and where railroads are thrown out in favour of trailblazing new lanes.

Put simply, The Last Jedi is really Disney’s first Star Wars movie. The Force Awakens, to my mind, is an effort in summary that was a bid to entice Star Wars fans to a new generation of heroes, and Rogue One was an excellent effort to capture some of the nostalgia that has defined Star Wars’ best parts. What Disney has yet to do is set up a branching universe of films with their own tonalities as it has with Marvel’s comic-based outings, and now The Last Jedi is our view to how the saga will be shaped going forward.

I didn’t entirely like it. Let me explain. Spoilers follow.

Read more


Android Go

For emerging markets, the arrival of Android Go is huge

Where Android One never truly took off, Google has revealed Android Go – a potential game-changer for smartphones in emerging markets.

Android One was a noble idea – convince manufacturers to produce elementary smartphones to run a simplified version of Android. However, much of the roadblock that prevented the initiative taking off was the necessity to convince manufacturers – and where Android One failed, Android Go is here to pick up the slack.

Announced yesterday at Google’s 2017 I/O, Android Go operates not as a gestalt operating system with specific hardware commitments from manufacturers, but rather as a profile within Android O which tailors experiences to match the power of devices with 1GB of RAM or less.

What does this mean? There are several consequences to Google’s initiative – all of them major, and the good news is that for the next billion people to come online, most of them are overwhelmingly positive.

Components that comprise smart devices are expensive – and not all are created equal. Thus, manufacturers either use premium-grade components such as camera modules, RAM, or processors to equip their best phones with market-leading features, while budget handsets are forced to contend with lesser hardware appropriate to the segment of the market they serve.

This forces a conundrum; Android was designed for premium grade smartphones, and the trickle-down effect of bringing expensive hardware to budget or mid-range devices isn’t happening at a pace fast enough to satisfy the demand for a smart device that can connect to the internet. The end result is that consumers generally spend what they can afford to or aspire to buying a premium device.

Android Go upends this process; running as a profile on Android O, device manufacturers do not need to bend their production of any smart device to a specific hardware standard. Android Go functions with minimal support and runs simplified versions of Android apps – for example, YouTube Go – enabling consumers to pick a smart device that appeals to their budget and still benefit from similar features to ‘core’ Android devices.

The end equation balances by enabling manufacturers to produce many more entry-level devices without the need to acquire expensive components, and that consumers can finally acquire an entry-level Android device, connect to the internet, and access many of the same services that those already online enjoy.

Complications? There are a few. Android Go is reliant on an installation of Android O, meaning that it will be some time before consumers around the world can pick up a device running Android 8.0 O at launch. Secondly, there’s the enormous task of bringing connectivity to regions around the world that have not benefitted from internet access as yet.

Still, the promise of Android Go is real, and is far more tangible than the efforts of Android One, which never truly came to fruition. For emerging markets around the world, the promise of an elementary, but powerful Android device can finally become more than an out-of-reach dream.

What are your thoughts? How will Android Go shape access to the internet and smart devices going forward? Tweet me – @bryansmithSA!

This story originally appeared on Bandwidth Blog.


marina da gama

Uitsig Neighbourhood Watch and Deep Blue Security help recover stolen vehicle moments after theft

A quick response time on behalf of the Uitsig Neighbourhood Watch (UNW) and Deep Blue Security was instrumental in recovering the stolen vehicle of a Marina da Gama resident.

After a spate of criminal activity in Marina da Gama’s Uitsig Peninsula earlier this year, the quick response time and proactive involvement of the Uitsig Neighbourhood Watch (UNW) and Deep Blue Security were paramount in recovering the stolen vehicle of fellow Marina da Gama resident Bruno Werz, a long-standing member of the UNW.

Werz, who was present in his home on the afternoon of Sunday, the 20th of November, was alerted to a loud noise emanating from outside his house; upon investigating, it was found that his car had been removed from his driveway.

After Werz placed a message on the neighborhood WhatsApp group, urging residents to be on the lookout for his white Toyota Corolla, the message was distributed to several other security forums held on the app with minutes. Alerted to the possibility of criminal activity in their area, UNW members and residents of the Marina alike began searching for the missing vehicle.

Werz immediately contacted the South African Police Services and Deep Blue Security – an armed response and monitoring firm active throughout the greater Marina – the latter of which dispatched two armed response officers.

One of Werz’s neighbours, James Lunn, investigated his security camera footage using the Amcrest WiFi camera technology and found that a suspicious pick-up truck had circled in the area with three passengers inside.

It was at this point that Mario Katts, a fellow resident of the Marina, was informed of the incident by his wife, Chantall, who had seen Werz’ message on the WhatsApp group. Katts, who was originally headed to do grocery shopping at Capricorn Shopping Center, instead established contact with Werz and Deep Blue Security officers with a proposition; to head into the nearby township of Capricorn to search for the vehicle the suspects escaped the area in.

READ: Violence in Vrygrond: Taxi violence erupts, roads closed

mario katts uitsig neighbourhood watch UNW
Mario Katts, a committee member of the Uitsig Neighbourhood Watch

Katts, Werz, and Deep Blue Security officers proceeded to comb the streets of Capricorn to no avail; it was after a short while that the group found themselves having driven north into the nearby suburb of Lavender Hill.

Having found no trace of the vehicle, the group elected to return to Marina da Gama before night fell over the suburb. However, while re-entering Capricorn, the group sighted a white Toyota Corolla and – upon Werz’ confirmation that the vehicle was indeed his – decided to pursue.

The suspects vehicle fled upon being pointed out, issuing the beginning of a car chase throughout Capricorn, Lavender Hill, and ultimately into Overcamp.

The suspects ultimately executed a harsh left turn, throwing Katts, Werz, and Deep Blue Security off-track; while searching the area shortly afterwards, the group successfully located Werz’ vehicle which had been abandoned and – fortunately – locked.

While the escaped suspects had disabled the ignition on Werz’ vehicle – forcing the car to be towed back into Marina da Gama – Werz was elated to have his vehicle returned to him.

Citing the speedy effort made to trace the vehicle’s whereabouts, Werz thanked all residents of the Marina and the UNW members who had assisted him, and in particular thanked Mario Katts and Deep Blue Security for their efforts.

While Werz’s vehicle was fortunately recovered, the incident joins several other attempted – and successful – burglaries in the area in recent months. Both Deep Blue Security and UNW reiterated their dedication to take back their neighbourhood.


weekly update

Weekly update: Apple vs the FBI, Samsung & more

In this weekly update for the 5th-12th March, I talk about my view on Apple vs the FBI, Samsung’s #TheNextGalaxy event, and the Cape Town comedy club.

With my new space on the web marking a return to personal writing, and in lieu of not having anything significant to say this eve, I thought I might recap my week in a similar vein to Tyler Reed‘s weekly update. I don’t expect I’ll keep writing these regularly, but it might make for a nice break from news and op-ed writing.

Rather than list through mundanities, I’d rather work through listing some of the highlights of my week by topic.

Apple vs the FBI

One of the biggest debates raging in the tech space right now is Apple’s crusade against FBI requests for iPhone access. While a lot of this is lost to detail in-between court rooms, I believe this is one of the key discourses we need to navigate in the 21st century. It’s rather ironic that the debate itself is happening on a micro-scale (one manufacturer setting a ‘precedent’, as Tim Cook would no doubt say, as opposed to a macro debate on overall net neutrality.

For instance, I find the security of platforms such as Free Basics (set to bring the next billion online) hardly investigated while the concerns of those among use wealthy enough to afford an iPhone simultaneously afford top billing in this debate. It’ll be interesting to see if, in future, a certain ‘reprieve’ from observation or security violation will be afforded to an aristocracy while the rest of the world lives through transparent devices. One could argue with the way BlackBerry have positioned the Priv is the latest forerunner to such a paradigm existing in future.

On the more general side of things, I had a great time talking with Theunis on this week’s Bandwidth Blog On Air podcast on the entire debate; he shared some opinions which have made me rethink my position. You can listen in below! In the meantime, expect another weekly update on this some time in the future.

 

Samsung #TheNextGalaxy launch event

It’s been a while since I left Cape Town, but this week afforded me the very cool opportunity of heading for Johannesburg to report on the local launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.

You can read my #TheNextGalaxy timeline, but one of the more interesting takeaways from the event is Samsung’s focus on creating VR content with the Gear 360 and its new position on mobile gaming; the latter of which is a welcome but abrupt entry using Vulkan.

I look forward to seeing what LG bring with them following the launch of the G5 in the country. While the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are the best iterations of the Galaxy line so far, I’m really interested to play about with the G5’s dual camera setup.

Cape Town Comedy Club

Arriving back on a red-eye flight on Friday morning, I joined in with my good friend Charné and a group of friends I’d not met before (Gabbi, Alexei, Pierre) and headed to the Cape Town Comedy Club; my first time at the venue.

The humour was largely a mixed bag; I enjoyed the early Cockney abrasiveness but that quickly palled as the night went on. Highlights for me included Westley Cockrell and Carl Weber.

Overall, it was a great night in good company; however, if you’re planning on heading there, stick to drinks. You won’t get your money’s worth in food.

Other thoughts

Presently, I’m sitting without a phone as my trusty Xperia Z1 refuses to charge. I hope by the end of the evening it decides to play ball.

I’m strongly considering heading back to an iPhone for my next personal device. I find myself growing weary of Android’s fragility; more and more I find myself needing a camera-focussed device rather than an all-rounder.

Looking forward to another interesting week in tech. First, a healthy Sunday’s respite, and hopefully I’ll be back with another weekly update or another piece next week.

Image this week taken from Cape Town International Airport. A quote, first heard from my old friend, Rahul Dowlath, comes to mind:
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”