How smartwatch designers should be designing smartwatches

All the companies in the smartwatch race are following Pebble's lead. Here's what they all can do to try to stand out in a suddenly crowded market.

"I wish battery technology followed Moores Law." This was Pebble Watch founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky’s answer to my question, “if you had one wish for a technological breakthrough what would it be?“ Moore’s law is the high-tech maxim coined by Intel that says every two years the number of transistors on a microprocessor chip become twice as dense and the microprocessor twice as powerful. It was a surprising answer from the head of the company that makes a device with a five- to seven-day battery life that leads the industry.

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Steady improvements in power management have compensated for lagging developments in battery technology. But the most advanced notebook battery life is still only 10 hours. The power-miserly smartphone blackens its LCD within a few seconds, but still has to be recharged every night and more frequently with heavy use.

A smartwatch is different. The regular annoyance of recharging a third device would hinder consumer adoption.

Smartwatch makers are not in a race to release a next-generation device with faster processors, more memory and higher-resolution displays like the smartphone makers. Sony, Qualcomm and Pebble smartwatches are all powered by a 200MHz or slower ARM Cortex M3 processor, which are unremarkable compared to the processors powering smartphones. The exception is the Samsung Gear, which is powered with an 800 MHz Exynos processor most likely to have the capacity to run Android 4.x.

The use cases for wearables like smart watches are based on what designers call “microinteractions” between people and their smartphones. Everyone has used microinteractions even if they are not familiar with the term. A downward swipe to display notifications or sideways swipes to turn a page are examples of microinteractions. Well-designed microinteractions simplify apps and shorten the time to convert the user’s intent into a gratifying experience. Relocating the microinteraction to a smartwatch from a smartphone app tethered together with Bluetooth improves the user experience because the clumsy delay of pulling out a smartphone can be exchanged with a glance at the wrist.

Pebble and independent developers moved microinteractions, such as email and text notifications, checking running pace and changing music tracks onto the Pebble. Smartwatch apps reduce the awkwardness of constantly turning one's attention to a smartphone. For example, one app vibrates both the smartphone and Pebble when an important call is received, eliminating deliberations in answering.

Pebble is the first app-compatible smartwatch to reach 100,000 unit shipments in a year. Migicovsky started iterating designs five years ago in his dorm room. The concept evolved into the Impulse smartwatch designed to display Blackberry notifications. The first Impulse production run was only 500 units. The $10 million Pebble raised in its Kickstarter campaign funded the development and production of the current design, which works wirelessly tethered to both iOS and Android devices.

Pioneer Pebble’s success is partly to blame for Qualcomm, Sony and Samsung’s smartwatch introductions and the rumored pending smartwatch announcements by Google and Apple. Although BI Intelligence forecasted the wearables market to grow to $12 billion by 2018, it is early in its evolution. These large consumer electronics companies don’t expect smartwatches to immediately effect sales results; rather, they are experimenting to learn how to build smartwatches that consumers will buy in smartphone volumes.

The most obvious case of practical smartwatch R&D is Qualcomm, which makes mobile processors powering many popular smartphones. CNET reported that Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm Internet Services and Qualcomm Innovation Center, said regarding his company’s smartwatch introduction: “The company will sell only a limited number of smartwatches -- in the tens of thousands -- to show customers what its technology can do."

The design that wins the lead in the smartwatch race will be more than a derivative of a smartphone strapped to the wrist. The winning designs will create the right balance between hardware performance, very long battery life and smartphone and other wearable apps that improve the user experience by distributing microinteractions to the smartwatch. The smartwatch needs to be attractive too, because it’s also about wearing a stylish accessory that creates the right image.

There's a balance between experience and company size. The Pebble team has acquired creativity and experience innovating during the last five years that rang true with the consumers who backed Pebble on Kickstarter. Pebble has been constrained by limited resources relative to its much larger rivals, but myopically focused. The rest of the consumer electronics companies entering the market have greater resources but less experience and more distractions.

Pebble could not succeed without competitors noticing. Samsung’s primetime advertising of the Galaxy Gear and anticipation of similar announcements from Google and Apple are more likely to increase broad consumer interest in Pebble and other wearables.

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