Sunday, December 28, 2014

Random thoughts on Android smartwatches

Just before Christmas I started looking into smartwatches again and found a few on ebay for £30 (35, $50). It is amazing to see hardware with a microSD slot, GPS and SIM available at this pricing point.

The well-publicized Kickstarter project Omate TrueSmart managed to raise $1m and the final deliverable seems unpolished and naturally let down many people. That was to be expected given the ambitious specs - particularly the IP67 waterproof rating which is hard to achieve and perhaps makes little difference for the kind of people that are interested in these gadgets. Another example is the 3MP (sold as 5MP) built-in camera which was bound to deliver poor results while taking too much space. There were some security concerns reported in Wikipedia and Lokifish Marz raised them in xda-dev. Other quirks that certainly upset many early adopters are curious, like opening the back of the TrueSmart to add a microSD card voiding the warranty!

Dig a bit more into the operation set up by Laurent Le Pen and it is disappointing to see him move away from a standalone watch and embark into the companion market. Don't get me wrong - the more I read about Omate the more amazed I am at what Le Pen has managed to built in a period of three years. Some Kickstarter backers may see it differently but then again if you are investing in a start-up you should know that the odds are against you. From a market point of view the new Omate strategy seems to be an adequate response to some reports on wearables. But from a technical front the watch becomes dumber and risks turning into an Apple iWatch-wannabe. Let's not forget that Omate's remarkable - and arguable - success was due to the tech specs and promises in Kickstarter. Going for a "smartphone's pet" approach means competing with those $50 smartwatches on ebay.

Has Google's certification process perhaps crippled the idea of stand-alone smartwatches? It seems that way given some of the comments around Google Play and Google Services not being pre-shipped with the TS - sadly it meant the device was end-of-life from day one. The Omate TrueSmart experiment reminds me of Windows CE/Mobile: trying to shrink Windows so that it fit in small devices was proven a bad idea. Microsoft lost more than a decade in the process and is still struggling to catch up after billions spent on R&D. Is Google trying to avoid the same mistake?

Leaving aside the Google discussion, smartwatches with SIMs are bound to be the way forward for the patently obvious reasons that they are easier to carry than a mobile phone and can be made much cheaper than a smartphone. Like tablets, smartwatches are a new market and only time will tell if they are good enough to replace other form factors. Will you be able to read a book in your smartwatch? Maybe yes with something like Spritz. Will you be able to play cool games in smartwatches? Definitely.

Apart from consumers, the biggest winners of SIM-powered smartwatches are easy to spot: mobile phone carriers. Imagine a few hundred million new smart devices connected to the mobile network and suddenly the world is your Oyster - not Perpetual, though ;-). When you see what Le Pen did with $1m it is puzzling to understand the little innovation emerging from mobile phone operators. Some of the issues with Omate (namely distribution and customer service) are bound to be problems long solved by carriers such as Vodafone or AT&T. Why are they waiting for the next device from Apple instead of taking the lead and offering true options to the existing tech-hungry generation? Are mobile payments more important than adding millions of new devices to the grid - this time under their own terms and conditions?

Another winner in the mix seems to be MediaTek. From their website I gather that "worldwide shipments of Android devices to reach 1.1 billion in 2014. Approximately one third (340 million) of these Android devices will have MediaTek chipsets". It seems like Intel let go of an opportunity here, too.

All in all 2015 looks very promising when it comes down to wearables. I for sure am looking forward to trying an HP48 emulator on my wrist!

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