As Pebble’s latest smartwatch, the Pebble Time, raises a record amount of funding on Kickstarter, it stands out from competitors like the forthcoming Apple Watch or the many Android Wear smartwatches on the market for one reason: it keeps things simple.
Tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Google are trying to put a smartphone on users’ wrists. But Pebble’s main focus is still time. The Pebble Time uses an e-paper screen — though color this time — and a simple timeline interface. While it’s compatible with more than 6,500 existing Pebble apps and watch faces, Pebble chose not to add a large number of built-in apps or go too far beyond its roots in simplicity.
But few other smartwatch makers are placing the same emphasis on keeping things simple, and are instead taking a much different approach in building devices they hope users will want to wear, day in and day out, on their wrists. Kevin Tofel, of the now-defunct GigaOM, recently wrote on Medium that all smartwatches face a common challenge: offering simplicity and value without adding complexity. If an activity on a smartwatch takes too much time or requires too much engagement, users are better off pulling out their phone for a faster, easier interaction. Designing a platform and apps to make using a smartwatch a compelling experience is a major challenge, one that Tofel thinks it’s difficult for even Apple to successfully meet.
The Apple Watch needs to be operated with two different buttons — one of which can be both pushed and turned — and requires the user to tap, swipe, and press to bring up more options. When he experimented with the Apple Watch, Tofel thought that using the smartwatch was too complicated. “This isn’t to say the Apple Watch (or similar devices) won’t sell well, nor do I consider the software to be bad,” he wrote. “It simply illustrates the design constraints of a small, connected screen that every smartwatch user faces.”
He explains that trying to fit a full-featured mobile interface onto a smartwatch is “like trying to cram today’s connected mobile experience into a flip phone from 1999. There’s only so much room to work with so you need to either have many ‘off-screen’ items and expect buyers to swipe, swipe, swipe, or you can to clutter up the display with menus.”
He notes that Android Wear watches require users to scroll through a list of apps, and while Google has improved the platform to place your most-used apps at the top, “lists and smartwatches don’t make for good friends.” You can also launch an app with a voice command or with a third-party app launcher — a shortcut that a smartwatch platform, ideally, shouldn’t need. Apple took a different approach with the Apple Watch, placing an array of round app icons on the small screen. But Tofel thinks that users who hope that a smartwatch will save them time — because they don’t need to pull out their phone, unlock it, and then take action on the information it presents — will be disappointed.
So how could the next generation of smartwatches get easier, and faster, to use? They’ll likely grow more dependent on voice control, though that’s simply an extension of what exists already. Tofel projects that smarter combinations of sensors, context, and personal information will enable smartwatches to anticipate which apps users need. That would not only reduce the complexity of the user interface, but turn the smartwatch into a smart, wearable assistant.
ZDNet’s Jason Hiner recently wrote that the Apple Watch “fundamentally departs from Apple’s core religion: simplicity and ease of use.” Apple products traditionally start by doing less, and then add greater functionality as they evolve with each successive generation. In Hiner’s estimation, the Apple Watch tries to “get there all at once” and consequently ends up “too complicated and convoluted.”
The new interface elements of the Apple Watch are unlike other Apple products, but they’re necessary because of all of the functionality that Apple introduced with the watch, including Glances, built-in apps, and third-party apps. Hiner thinks that some of these will be “super useful,” but points to others as examples of tasks that would best be performed on a smartphone — like flipping through Instagram photos or trying to look at an Uber map on the Apple Watch’s small screen. Hiner writes that both Apple and app makers need to think harder about what does and doesn’t make sense on a smartwatch. In his estimation, “Apple’s uncharacteristic approach with the Apple Watch has given us a product that doesn’t live up to the high standards for simplicity and ease of use that have defined its products over the past decade and a half.”
Jon Phillips at Macworld wrote that if he were Tim Cook, he wouldn’t be worrying about getting people to buy the Apple Watch. Instead, he’d be worried about what happens when they actually start using it. A July 2014 study showed that approximately a third of all smartwatch and fitness band owners abandon their wrist wearables after six months, blaming problems like poor battery life. But Phillips thinks that the Apple Watch — with a battery designed to last about 18 hours — faces an even bigger problem: feature bloat.
From voice calls to hear rate monitoring, Apple’s smartwatch sports many features that previous smartwatches have failed to implement in a way that’s truly functional for users. Voice calling on Samsung’s Gear doesn’t live up to its potential thanks to a weak speaker, and the heart rate sensors on Samsung and Android Wear smartwatches can’t provide real-time readings during the “jumping and jostling” of physical exercise. The Apple Watch is packed with features, some of questionable utility. And while users can choose not to use all of the features of the smartwatch — and ignore the ones that don’t appeal to them — Phillips points out that it’s “psychologically deflating” to buy a product packed with features you never use.
For Apple and for other smartwatch makers alike, the problem with this new product category is that we’ll hold smartwatches to much more stringent standards than our other devices because they aren’t essential (at least not yet). While you need a computer and a phone, you don’t have to have a smartwatch. The Apple Watch and its competitors are not only trying to make the smartwatch a compelling product, but are trying to validate a product category that no one’s yet completely figured out.