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As the Apple Watch joins the march toward wearable computing, does it augur the ultimate end of the very device — the smartphone — that the company popularized?
Smartwatches, such as the Moto 360, Samsung Gear S, Pebble, and Apple Watch, are far from perfect, but one can already see the outlines of a product that could displace its predecessor. For many people, laptops replaced desktops and then tablets replaced laptops. Could our addiction to smartphones be just as vulnerable?
Smartphones have hit something of a technological slump, delivering only minor improvements with each new model — a better camera here, a sharper screen there. Smartwatches, on the other hand, seem to have nothing but potential.
Witness the number of apps released for the much ballyhooed Apple Watch. What were just a dozen or so apps before launch has grown into the thousands. There are the expected messaging and social media apps, and you don't need much more than a tiny watch screen to send a “LOL” text. But smartwatches can also play music, pay for your latte, open a lock, and even monitor your finances. Mint, for example, will tell you how fiscally responsible you're being on your Apple Watch. You can find a restaurant nearby using Yelp and identify a song playing in a store with Shazam — all from your watch. You can even check prices while shopping and take a quick note. Hyundai has even demonstrated an Android and Apple Watch app that can start cars remotely and unlock their doors. BMW has demonstrated an app that tells a car to autonomously go and park itself. Yes, really.
Battery life has been a major criticism of the new watches. A smartwatch typically only lasts for a single day before needing a recharge. That sounds terrible if you are comparing a smartwatch to a traditional watch (which only needs a new battery once a year). But it would be more appropriate to compare a smartwatch to a smartphone. In that context, smartwatches best any smartphone, which have even worse battery performance.
True, smartwatches do not, as a category, possess some absolutely essential features needed to replace a phone, such as built-in GPS and independent cellular connections. But, some models do have these features, such as the Samsung Gear S that has a built-in phone. More memory and processing power is sure to follow. So, it's not difficult to imagine next year's version of the Apple Watch with not just Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but also its own cellular service.
Moreover, because they are worn next to the skin, smartwatches can do much more than smartphones, particularly in the area of health and fitness. With built-in blood flow monitors, they can constantly check your pulse rate, as well as measure galvanic skin response and physical movement, delivering information on the wearer's health that cannot be done without considerable effort on a smartphone.
So, it may not be a crazy idea to think a wrist computer could replace a smartphone. Look how Google has recently shifted its search engine, deferring to mobile friendly results. It's not a stretch to see those same results and Web sites becoming wrist friendly.
Of course, you can't write (or for that matter, read) War and Peace or manipulate a massive spreadsheet on a tiny watch screen. But you can't write a novel on a smartphone either. For that type of work, desktop computers still rule.
Most of us aren't trying to write the next great novel or trying to balance the books at HSBC. Most of us – let's be honest, here — don't read lengthy news stories on a phone, either. We scan the headlines and maybe later read the articles on a tablet or laptop.
The big pitch for smartwatches is that you can do tasks like checking texts, e-mails, and Facebook posts without digging out your smartphone. That represents a behavioral change that could be critical. People may notice that they are reaching into their pockets less and less frequently for their phones —until they don't bother reaching for them at all.