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In Search of the Next Boom, Developers Cram Their Apps into Smart Watches

Clever apps might persuade people that they need a wrist-worn computer.
September 25, 2013

The age of wearable computing is upon us. Forget the debate over how capable or fashionable the first devices are, how popular they may eventually become, or even whether we fully understand what we’re getting into with these devices (see “The Paradox of Wearable Technology”). The big question is simply: what will they do? And the answer will have much to do with the apps that emerge.

samsung watch on wrist showing four icons
Wrist action: Apps already available for the Galaxy Gear include Banjo, which shows social posts by people nearby, and Atooma, which lets users program different tasks.

Both hardware makers and software developers hope that wearables, like the smartphone, tablet, and television, will become a new platform for application development. The two most promising platforms are the headset and the smart watch. But while the only viable headset is Google’s still-in-beta Glass, smart watches and smart watch apps have arrived. These early smart watches may also help clarify what does and doesn’t work for software development in the broader emerging category of wearable technology.

The first devices include Samsung’s Galaxy Gear ($300) (see “Is Samsung’s Galaxy Gear the First Truly Smart Watch?”), Qualcomm’s Mirasol-screened Toq ($300), and the Kickstarter-backed Pebble ($150). Apple is also widely thought to be developing its own “iWatch” (see “Apple Needs a New Category to Reinvent”).

Samsung is launching the Galaxy Gear, which runs a modified version of the Android smartphone operating system, with a small group of third-party application developers, both to work out the kinks in its software application programming interface, and to establish best practices for app development. One of Samsung’s launch partners for Galaxy Gear is Runkeeper, which has already developed a popular fitness application for smartphones and for the Pebble smart watch.

Nine months ago, Runkeeper began working with Samsung on apps for other devices. Runkeeper’s CEO, Jason Jacobs, compares this generation of smart watches to the first tablet computers. “As with any new category that emerges, it’s a question getting to know the category and figuring out what the use cases are,” he says.

For the Galaxy Gear, Runkeeper is following Samsung’s and Pebble’s approach of using the smart watch as a companion for the smartphone. This approach will affect the way apps are designed.

“It’s not a replacement for the app on the phone,” says Jacobs of the Runkeeper app for the Galaxy Gear. “It’s a remote control so you can keep your phone in your pocket, can start and stop without pulling your phone out. It’s the same data, the same application, but changes the experience to make it less intrusive.”

Jacobs believes some unexpected ways of using smart watches will emerge as apps appear. “No one really imagined that doctors would use tablets as they made their rounds,” says Jacobs. “The skeptics who say ‘no one would ever use that’ [about smart watches] are some of the same people who said they would never use a laptop without a keyboard.”

While a fitness app seems like a natural fit for a smart watch, the usefulness of other apps is less clear. Pocket, for example, which serves primarily as a way to share articles and video between devices, is also available for the Galaxy Gear.

Pocket’s founder and CEO Nate Weiner acknowledges that a smart-watch screen is limited. “This device is not for long periods in which a person is looking at their watch to consume content,” he says. “We weren’t going to just drop a Pocket list on there and assume people would want to read or watch a video on their watch for a long period of time.”

Instead, Pocket sidestepped the screen and went for audio. Users can listen to articles already saved to Pocket on the smart watch with the same text-to-speech feature already available on Pocket’s Android app. It’s not recommended in crowded spaces, and it may be awkward to hold the Galaxy Gear’s tiny speaker near your ear like a transistor radio, but Pocket was able to easily port Listen to the Galaxy Gear because Samsung built its smart watch on Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world.

Samsung’s chief product officer, Kevin Packingham, said at the Galaxy Gear launch event in New York earlier this month that simplicity will be the key with smart-watch apps. “As we innovate, sometimes we add too much complexity to devices,” he told MIT Technology Review. “Some people want as much horsepower as they can get, and you want to allow them to do that, but you also want to make it usable for the average user who wants a companion device.”

Samsung experimented with how much functionality to add to the Gear’s app for making and answering telephone calls, Packingham says. The guiding design principle was to get the device out of the way when it’s not being used. “Some [devices], and I won’t name names, are very intrusive,” he says. “They can interfere with how you live your life on a daily basis. We don’t want that to be the case for our wearables. We want them to be natural, rather than edgy.”

This may be a veiled jab at Google Glass, but it’s also part of our expectations for a wristwatch: besides being relatively hands-free, the appeal of checking time, weather, or notifications on a smart watch is that it’s quick, natural, and discreet. Ideally, third-party applications will follow the same approach.

Adam Stroud, Runkeeper’s lead Android developer, says that for fitness applications, the watch form factor offers as many advantages as disadvantages. “A smart-watch screen is great for display, bad for interaction,” Stroud says. “There’s not a lot of room for input; the minute you flash up a keyboard on that little screen, it’s over.”

It’s likely that other companies will create Android-based smart watches with different screen and hardware specifications. Stroud says that Android developers are already used to working around this problem with phones. However, the information that smart watches gather is very different from a phone. “Sensors are really interesting in a watch,” Stroud says.

On a smart watch, Runkeeper’s software will compete more directly with fitness bands like the Fitbit ($99) and with runner’s watches like Garmin’s Forerunner ($250), all of which are already jockeying for scarce real estate on the wrist. The hope is that over time, devices that do more, cost less, and look and feel better will win out.

Smart-watch makers also firmly believe that all wearable computing devices will get better. Samsung executives called the first model of the Galaxy Gear “a concept device,” and reports suggest that a new Galaxy Gear could appear as soon as next January’s Consumer Electronics Show.

“The beauty of being in the business we’re in is that we don’t really care what form factor ultimately wins,” says Runkeeper’s Jacobs. “Wherever wearables emerge that are fitness-friendly and are used by hundreds of millions of people, we want to power the software. It doesn’t matter to us whether that’s your watch, your phone, your glasses, or the phone tying into sensors in your clothes.”

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