The round-faced smartwatch won't kick-start the industry
The new generation of round-faced Android Wear devices won't even the playing field with the Apple Watch
As the Economist wrote in this morning's edition of Espresso, for the small but growing number of people interested in smartwatches, these are good times.
This week sees the start of IFA, the mega consumer electronics show in Germany, where many of the biggest tech vendors will show off their latest wares. And as the smartphone market matures, and people generally seem to care less about new smartphone launches, the heavy-hitters are betting big on smartwatches.
Ahead of the first day, we've had smartwatch launches from LG, Samsung, Asus, Motorola, and Huawei - among others. All of them are jumping on the Android Wear bandwagon as they hope to meet Apple head-on in this emerging category. The Apple Watch is, by far, the best smartwatch on the market today, so Cupertino's competitors are hoping that this new generation of Android Wear devices will even the playing field.
But it won't. And here's why.
It's all in the design. No matter how good the software underneath the face is, someone will only put on a wearable if they believe that it looks good. Apple's design chops are well known, and the company has done a fantastic job of creating a good-looking wearable device with the Watch. The other major tech vendors, however, haven't been so lucky.
As a result, the emerging trend is smartwatches that look like normal watches, with round faces and mechanical-looking hands. The idea is that, most of the time, the watch is a watch, but other things will show up on the screen upon receipt of a notification, or an input from the user.
And if you look at the smartwatches released at this year's IFA, you'll notice that all of the big names have come out with round-faced smartwatches.
It's not a bad strategy at first glance. After all, it's much easier to create a product with countless reference designs to base your idea on. You could create something that looks like a Rolex, or a Patek Philippe, and then simply add smart functions. Things should also be easier on the manufacturing side - the Asian supply chain is chock-full of skilled watchmakers, who could take care of the casing and strap side of things, while the vendors simply worry about the computing.
Unfortunately, faith in the round-faced smartwatch concept is misplaced. Watches look great with round faces (though there are plenty of great-looking, squared-faced watches, too). But smartwatches are a different story. They might look similar, but it's obvious to anyone but a luddite that they're totally different concepts, and should be treated as such.
When it comes to digital interactions, the round face just isn't suited to the job. It's more difficult to orchestrate touch inputs as a user, and screen renderings come out weird-looking. This is because, throughout the history of the graphical user interface, we've worked exclusively on square or rectangular screens. Trying to condense all of that history down to something that can fit on your wrist is enough of a challenge in itself, but to do that and to change the format to a rounded screen is nigh-on impossible - if you want to deliver a good user experience, that is.
What's required, then, is new GUI concept that takes design into consideration. That's what Apple has done with the Watch, but other vendors have so far been unable to so expertly blur the lines between physical and digital. Instead, you get a messy collision between two worlds that should stay unrelated - fine horology and personal computing. There's room in the future for the two to meet, for sure, but in these early stages, we need a new concept entirely.
Indeed, if I wanted a round-faced watch because I liked the design of it, I wouldn't go anywhere near a tech vendor - I'd go to a traditional watch house. The new models debuting at IFA may look great in the photos, but how are they going to feel on your wrists? What are the materials going to be like? How heavy are they going to be? I'd wager that most of the questions take a back-seat while vendors try to cram computing platforms into the wearable form factor.
Yes, the smartwatch is, at the end of the day, a watch. But it's also so much more. Rather than looking back for design inspiration, vendors should look forward so that we can discover just how much more the smartwatch will be.