The idea of the smart watch really goes back even further than two years as companies looked for interesting ways to connect a device that people carry every day to our PCs. Timex had a version of the Iron Man watch that was capable of transferring data and contact information via light pulses on a CRT long before the first true smartphones hit the market (even the PDA phones were not there yet). The smartphone was still in its infancy when the first data manager watches appeared on the scene capable of connecting via USB to sync data. I still own one of the Citizen Hyper-Aqualand Dive computer watches that allowed me to store dive log information and then push it back to my computer via a 25-pin RS-232 connection and a cradle. The original version of this product is so old that the application and drivers all fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk. Of course those of us that grew up in the 80’s will remember the calculator watches that had a minor run of popularity.
So you can see that the idea of using your watch for more than just keeping time has been around for about 30 years and using your watch to carry data that syncs to your PC is about 20 years old. Of course, none of these is a true “smart watch” but they are clear ancestors and part of the evolutionary chain for these new products. The first real watch that qualifies as a “smart” device to hit the retail market was the I’m Watch form Italian developer I’m Spa. This watch hit the market in mid-2011 and was one of the first to incorporate an Android OS and touch screen in a watch. Sony Followed suit showing off their Android flavored touch screen watch at CES 2012 and launching it to the retail market in early 2012 (the US launch was in Mid-April 2012).
Both the I’m Watch and Sony’s Smart watch use Bluetooth to connect to your phone and not only sync data, but connect to the internet to gather data on their own. The I’M Watch can play music, display calendar, twitter, Facebook and other notifications. It is a pretty impressive device as long as you are willing to wait until you are in range of Wi-Fi or pay for data tethering. Sony’s offering is the same although somewhat smaller and appears to have a shorter battery life (and price tag). So how will Samsung or Apple differentiate their product so they can claim a first? It is likely that there is no way to do this right now. As far as we can tell (from information we have) there is no economical way to put in a 3G or 4G radio into a device as small as a watch and still maintain an acceptable battery life.
So this means that for the next few years the smart watch will remain tethered to the smartphone to do its work regardless of who is making it. All we might get from Samsung and Apple is a slightly new twist on what is now an established idea and a media battle to establish a corporate mythology that one of them did this first (both of these companies have done this in the past). In the meantime all of us will be waiting for the day when a real smart watch hits the market. We are not dismissing the ones that are hear or the ones that might be coming out later this year (we love our I’m Watch), but it would be nice if they were more of a standalone product and not a companion device that is reliant on a phone or other internet connection to work or one that is very limited in its feature scope (the I’m Watch only works with IMAP mail and Google Calendar). We know that Asus is working on a wearable device that might fill this need, but from everything that we have been able to discover it will not see daylight before the end of 2015. The good news is that many of the hurdles blocking the production of these devices flexible PCBs, Flexible screens and even improved touch screens are out of the way. The only a few items remain that need to be dealt with; we need to finish the development of a truly low powered 3/4G radio and a CPU (also low powered) capable of dealing with the demands most consumers have of their mobile devices. The last piece of the puzzle is the creation of a better and smaller battery.
For now the leader in the “smart watch” race has already been established, it was I’m Spa who had the first Modern smart watch no matter what Samsung or Apple might say. Now who will have the first REAL stand-alone smart watch is completely up in the air right now although we do look forward to see not only who will bring this device to the market, but what parts they use to make it all work…
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