Geek Vs Geek: Will Your Next Watch be Smart?

eHow Tech Blog

Mobile tech is transforming once again. These days, smartwatches can tell you everything you need to know while your phone stays in your pocket. Will they be The Next Big Thing, or just a passing fad?

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Dave: The history of tech has been the tale of a long, slow march towards totally pervasive computing — from mainframe computers to desktops to laptops, and then on to tablets and phones, computers keep getting smaller and less obtrusive. Someday, we’ll all have some sort of implants that let us access technology just by thinking about it. But until then, the next great wave of cool tech is upon us: Smartwatches. It won’t be long before everyone is wearing a smart, connected watch in the same way that everyone carries an iPhone today. But rather than take a phone out of your pocket, the info is already on your wrist.

Rick: Much as it pains me to agree with you, I do — in theory. Smartwatches sound like a great idea on paper, but the current crop isn’t so great on your wrist. Take the Pebble, which history might recognize as the device that ushered in the smartwatch era. Born on fundraising site Kickstarter, it was an instant success — because people loved the idea. But the actual product? Meh. It’s like something left over from the PalmPilot era, with its monochrome, pushbutton-powered screen and clunky design. I’m still waiting for a smartwatch that’s actually smart. And sexy.

Dave: I love the way you invariably start by saying you agree with me, and then you  proceed to disagree with everything I say in no uncertain terms. I should also point out that you’re hardly the most qualified person to pass judgement on smartwatches. Once upon a time, I clearly remember you arguing that no one needed a color display on a mobile device and we should all be happy with the grayscale PalmPilot. Don’t deny it — I have the magazine in evidence. So now, a few years later, you’re complaining that the Pebble doesn’t have a color display?

Rick: It’s just like you trot out stupid things I said years ago as evidence that I’m saying stupid things now. For the record, when I said that, there was no compelling reason to have a color PalmPilot — especially not if it meant paying considerably more money. But obviously now we live in a color-screened world. Does the Pebble need color? No, of course not — it’s a watch! But should it have it? Of course it should: Even the lowly Sansa Fuze MP3 player, which you can find online for like $50, has a color screen. It’s just silly that the Pebble doesn’t have it. And it’ll get left in the dust when the competitors arrive, because every single one will have color. Oh, and a touchscreen, which you conveniently neglected to mention.

Dave: Thankfully, I never have to go far to find stupid things you’ve said; you leave quite the paper trail. But I think you’re missing the point of the Pebble’s black and white, non-touch screen. You know what that buys you? A really long battery life. I only need to charge my Pebble once a week. But add a color touch screen, Pez dispenser, and fireworks launcher, and you’ll have to charge it up twice a day, just like your smartphone. Want a watch that can barely make it a full day without charging? I didn’t think so. And while we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t really want a color display on my wrist–it would be too distracting. And touch? Please. A watch screen is barely larger than your finger, far too small for a usable touch screen. Instead, focus on the cool things a smartwatch like Pebble actually does: Notifications. Text messages. Interactive apps like Runkeeper so you don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket.

Rick: I totally want all that stuff, and I’d be willing to dispense with a color screen to have it. As I said: it’s a watch. Color is superfluous. But touch? That’s a must. In this day and age, forcing a user to navigate menus via small, non-descript buttons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Why don’t you just install a rotary dial on your iPhone and be done with it? A smartwatch will involve a certain amount of user interaction, and touch is the only method that makes sense. I mean, how else are you going to select and interact with the notification app? The text-message app? The Runkeeper app? With button-powered menus? No thank you. The Pebble is a misfire, destined for the same scrap heap as the PalmPilot. Now, an Apple smartwatch? A Google smartwatch? That I want to see.

Dave: I get it: You irrationally hate the Pebble. But you’re dismissing the entire current crop of smartwatches — your words — on the merits of the Pebble alone. So you want a multi-touch color OLED display? Get an I’m Watch. Yes, it has the single stupidest name in the history of tech, but it seems to do everything you want from a smartwatch. So does the Sony, err, SmartWatch. Now that’s a product name that tells you everything you need to know. So what’s wrong with these watches? They’re smart, sexy, colory, touchy… the whole package. Just admit it.

Rick: I admit nothing. Moon landing: faked! Let’s work back to the original question, which is whether or not smartwatches are destined to be the Next Big Thing. I absolutely think they are. I want one, if only so I can keep my phone in my pocket but not miss an important call or text message. But I’d like to skip all the first-generation products we’re seeing now and go straight to the ideal: slim, light, touchable, and able to last two weeks between charges. Also, I want it for $99. The I’m Watch looks clunky and costs $300 (down from $400 when it debuted). The Sony works only with Android phones–and can’t even keep time without one! It also needs charging every single day. Fail. Get the picture now? Smartwatches will be great when they’re smart the way smartphones are smart. And the way you are not.

Dave: I can’t get a bead on you. Half the time you rant that  today’s tech is more than good enough, and other times you won’t even go camping without a jetpack and a litter of robot kittens. Look, this is simple: Of course the first generation of smartwatches will not be as awesome as the ones that come out next year or the year after that, but that’s true of any gadget. Did you refuse to buy a PalmPilot because it wasn’t an iPhone? Of course not. And these first gen devices are pretty awesome, though I’m partial to the Pebble and its week-long battery life. Next year there will be a better watch that has touch controls and a sharper screen, and I might switch then. But I’m not missing out on the fun and practicality of a smartwatch today because I’m holding out for a holographic voice-controlled watch that can fly tomorrow. What about you? Play us out, keyboard cat.

Rick: Your failed attempts to sound hip notwithstanding, these first-gen devices are not awesome, for all the reasons I cited above. You’ve always been a frivolous early-adopter, willing to splurge on anything with shiny blinky lights. Me, I’m waiting until developers get this product category right. “Good enough” is not good enough when it’s a device I’m going to keep strapped to my wrist night and day. You go ahead and enjoy that PalmPilot you’re wearing; I’m taking my jetpack and going home.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your house and explain something techy to your dad.

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