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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Beep, beep... your watch is calling

Today's smart watches are sleeker and do more than just tell the time. Are they the next big thing?
The Straits Times - April 15, 2013
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Beep, beep... your watch is calling

The media spotlight fell on smart watches when the Pebble, a smart watch for the iOS and Android systems, raised over US$10million (S$12.4 million) on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter last year. That exceeded its US$100,000 funding target by more than 100times.

After the Pebble, other smart watches such as Cookoo, Martian Watch and MetaWatch Strata were successfully funded on Kickstarter, though none came close to matching the Pebble phenomenon.

In recent weeks, reports have confirmed that tech giants Google, Samsung and LG are working on smart watches. It is also rumoured that Apple has 100 engineers working on a smart watch, which the media have predictably dubbed the iWatch.

So what is a smart watch?

It is essentially a wristwatch with "smart" functions that alert you when you have an incoming call, a new e-mail message or an upcoming appointment.

The new breed of smart watches lets you control your music player or check e-mail messages on their displays. Others can even answer calls. Such functions are usually available only when the smart watch is paired with a smartphone, usually via Bluetooth.

But as a concept, the smart watch goes all the way back to the 1940s, with comics detective Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio. Four decades later, it was the Knight Rider, Michael Knight, who wore a two-way communication wrist watch on the TV series.

In 1999, Samsung marketed what it called the first watch phone in the market, the SPH-WP10.

In 2003, Microsoft launched Spot, later renamed Smart Watch with Microsoft Direct, while watchmaker Fossil came up with a Wrist Personal Digital Assistant that ran on Palm OS 4.1.

But none became a runaway success and all of them vanished from the shops after a while.

40 years on, a different world

Mr Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at the UnitedStates-based research firm Current Analysis, thinks that the smart watches of the past failed because they were bulky, expensive and complicated and did not solve a pressing consumer problem.

Things are different now.

"The smartphone revolution has changed the status quo," he said.

Components, many of them designed for smartphones, are now small, cheap and power-efficient enough to put into something one can comfortably wear on the wrist.

The smart watch does not need to contain all the processing power internally, as it can be paired with a smartphone which one carries all the time, according to Mr Greengart.

"The wide penetration of smartphones in today's society means that compatible smart watches have a massive potential market and makes the consumer product an attractive proposition," said Mr Josh Flood, a senior analyst with the market research firm ABIResearch.

Smartphone users, he said, are now looking at more intuitive ways of interacting with their mobile devices rather than simply taking their smartphones out of their pockets to check whether they have received a text or an e-mail message.

Looks, battery life matter too

Mr Jason Leong, 30, a retail supervisor, finds his Cookoo smart watch very useful, especially when he is in a noisy environment.

"It prompts me whenever there is an incoming call, so I will never miss important ones," he said.

Mr Adrian Chan, 33, who is a public servant, is one of the 68,000backers of the Pebble smart watch on Kickstarter. He jokes that he now has no excuse for missing messages or calls since the watch vibrates to alert him every time one comes in.

For fellow Pebble user, MsAresha Krishnan, 29, who works in an advertising firm, the main benefit is being able to curate the alerts sent to her. "I can easily create a buffer between my daily digital clutter and what I want sent to my phone," she said.

She used to attend meetings carrying a work phone, a personal phone and a tablet. "Now, I can just set up alerts on my smart watch and go into a meeting with just my iPad mini," she said.

For smart watches to gain mass popularity, they will have to do more than tell the time and provide notification alerts, analysts said.

It has to look stylish. It has to have a long battery life and it must be able to tap into the larger eco-system of mobile operating systems.

"These factors will be the same things that drive smartphones adoption, such as the ease of use and user benefits," said Mr Rob Bratby, managing partner of technology law firm Olswang Asia.

ABI Research predicted that 1.3million smart watches will be shipped next year and more than 90million by 2018 - a compound growth rate of 235per cent annually.

Such projections may seem enormously optimistic. But initial reactions to smart watches indicate that they are not impossible.

On eBay, Pebble watches are being sold for double the initial US$150 retail price. Local technology retailer EpiCentre told Digital Life that its initial batch of 250 Cookoo smart watches were sold within four days when it was launched last month.

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