It's strange to think that something once as ubiquitous as the wristwatch is now an endangered species, rendered unnecessary by the clock display on mobile phones. According to the consumer research firm Experian Simmons, just 42 million Americans bought a watch for themselves in 2011, down from 55 million in 2004 [source: Goetz]. In the UK, a recent study showed that 14 percent of the public -- and 28 percent of those between ages 15 and 24 -- saw no need for a timepiece around their wrist anymore [source: McFarlane].
So, faced with becoming little more than a dusty museum piece, perhaps it was inevitable that watches -- like phones, coffee makers, refrigerators, automobiles and even entire houses -- would become "smart," i.e., equipped with microprocessors, software and wireless connections that allow them to perform all sorts of functions beyond the one for which they originally were intended.
It's unclear who first came up with the idea of turning the watch into a tiny computer with communications and networking capabilities. In the late 1990s, Swiss watchmaker Swatch and Dutch electronics giant Phillips tested a watch equipped with a radio-frequency identification chip that enabled it to pay subway fares and ski-lift fees [source: Taggart]. One of the first multi-featured devices may have been a wristwatch-sized computer equipped with both a touchscreen and a microphone for voice-activated apps and communicating, developed by Chandra Narayanaswami of IBM back in 2000 [source: Eisenberg]. In 2003, watchmaker Fossil, Microsoft and handheld computer maker Palm teamed up to develop the SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watch, a device equipped to wirelessly receive stock quotes, send and receive instant messages and do other stuff that seemed utterly cool at the time [source: McHugh].
Since then, we've seen the advent of vastly more powerful, sophisticated smart watches. One of the newest, the $149 Sony SmartWatch, is designed to do a lot of the things you count on your smartphone to do, such as accessing your digital music collection and keeping you plugged in to social networks. Better yet, it can do those things without requiring you to reach into your pocket or dig through your purse -- which may be one big advantage that wristwatches still have over phones [source: Sony.com].
What makes the Sony SmartWatch smart?
With its touchscreen display and icons, the Sony SmartWatch looks a lot like a really, really small Android smartphone. It's just 1.42 inches by 1.42 inches (3.6 by 3.6 centimeters) across, 0.3 inches (0.7 centimeters) in thickness, and weighs 0.55 ounces (15.5 grams) (somewhat less than the band to which it's attached) [source: Sony.com].
But while the SmartWatch lacks heft, it also demonstrates just how far the state of the art in miniaturization has come. While Sony doesn't disclose much about the hardware inside, the gadget-hacking Web site CMW, which dismantled one of the watches, reports that it sports a CPU that runs at 120 MHz, 128 kilobytes of RAM, and a full megabyte of flash memory for storage [sources: Murph, CMW]. That's more electronic muscle than some laptop computers had a couple of decades ago, and it enables the SmartWatch to run a stripped-down operating system that's compatible with Google's Android OS for phones, release 2.1 and up [source: Sony].
That last part is crucial, because when you aren't using the SmartWatch to check the time, it essentially functions as a Bluetooth-equipped peripheral add-on to your Android phone, piggybacking on the latter's wireless Internet connection. For some functions, such as music, it acts like a remote control, sifting through the phone's multiple gigabytes of storage to select and play songs. When the phone rings, you also can use the watch face to check who's calling you, and then -- provided you're also wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and microphone -- you can even answer the call without taking the phone out of your pocket or handbag [source: Olivarez-Giles].
But that's not the really sexy stuff. The SmartWatch can run its own teeny-weeny apps from Google's Play store or Sony LiveWare as well [source: Bennett]. Those enable you to scan your e-mail inbox, read texts, Tweets and Facebook posts, and even check the weather [source: Olivarez-Giles]. You can scroll through the apps by swiping a finger from right to left, while swiping downward eventually also gets you into an app tray similar to the one on Android phones [source: Bennett].
SmartWatch Pros, Cons and Competition
It should be mentioned that Sony isn't the only manufacturer vying to replace your watch with a multi-function gadget that'll enable you to lead a totally, continually connected wireless lifestyle. There's also the Motorola MotoACTV, which is not only designed to augment Motorola's RAZR phones, but also enables you to monitor your heart rate and check your route with a GPS chip while running or cycling [source: Oliver]. And there's also upstart tech company Allerta's new Pebble, which is so trendy that its development was partly funded by $4.7 million obtained through the crowd micro-financing site Kickstarter [source: Kim]. Unlike the Sony SmartWatch, the Pebble is designed to work with both iPhones and Android phones [source: Rieland].
So, how does the SmartWatch stack up against the competition? According to CNET reviewer Brian Barrett, the device has both strong and weak points. Its miniscule size makes it a lot more portable and less obtrusive than the bulkier MotoACTV, and the elegant design and variety of stylish colored wristbands available make the SmartWatch into a nice fashion accessory. But while Barrett was easily able to download and install apps, he found that some of them were glitch-ridden, and either didn't fully work or caused the watch to crash and reboot. The SmartWatch's battery life was another downside, since it's way shorter than a conventional watch. Barrett found that he needed to recharge it at least every two days, not even close to Sony's claimed longevity of four days [source: Barrett].
Slashgear reviewer Chris Davies noted that the SmartWatch, like other smart watches, also has a key limitation: Unlike a smartphone, its tiny screen is too small to tap out responses to your social media stream, e-mail and texts, which downsizes your interactions into one-sided communication [source: Davies]. Great for those texts you'd rather not respond to. Not so great for the ones that warrant a note back.
As a child in the 1960s, I was an avid reader of the comic strip "Dick Tracy," in which the intrepid detective and his colleagues -- always on the speculative cutting-edge of 20th century technology -- upgraded from their two-way wrist radios to wearing tiny two-way wrist TV sets. Back then, such gadgetry seemed like an unlikely dream. It was kind of unsettling when LG Electronics unveiled a wristwatch cell phone back in 2009 that actually had a camera and screen for video chatting. I notice, though, that the technology so far doesn't seem to have caught on in the marketplace, perhaps because most of us don't have anything as momentous to communicate as Tracy and his crime-stopping colleague Sam Ketchum usually did.
- Bennett, Brian. "Sony SmartWatch Hands-on: Not Perfect, But Shows Promise." CNET. April 12, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57413193-94/sony-smartwatch-hands-on-not-perfect-but-shows-promise/
- CMW.ME. "The Sony Smart Watch." April 17, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.cmw.me/?q=node/59
- Davies, Brian. "Sony SmartWatch Review." Slashgear.com. March 19, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.slashgear.com/sony-smartwatch-review-19219040/
- Eisenberg, Anne. "The World Through PC-Powered Glasses." New York Times. Dec. 14, 2000. (May 19, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/14/technology/the-world-through-pc-powered-glasses.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
- Goetz, Kaomi. "In Cell Era, Timepieces Are Fashion Trend To Watch." National Public Radio. April 30, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/150719282/in-cell-era-timepieces-are-fashion-trend-to-watch
- Kim, Ryan. "Forget the Money: Kickstarter Turns Pebble into a Platform." Gigaom.com. April 18, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://gigaom.com/2012/04/18/forget-the-money-kickstarter-turns-pebble-into-a-platform/
- McFarlane, Andrew. "Is time running out for the wristwatch?" BBC News Magazine. Oct. 28, 2010. (May 19, 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11634105
- McHugh, Josh. "Wrist-Top Revolution." Wired. April 2003. (May 19, 2012) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.04/fossil.html
- Murph, Darren. "Sony SmartWatch Torn Down and Dissected, Wishes it Were a Pebble." Endgadget.com. April 19, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.engadget.com/2012/04/19/sony-smartwatch-tear-down-dissection-splayed/
- Olivarez-Giles, Nathan. "Sony SmartWatch Brings Twitter, Facebook, Texting to Your Wrist." Wired. April 12, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/04/sony-smartwatch-brings-twitter-facebook-texting-to-your-wrist/
- Oliver, Dave. "Motorola MotoACTV review." Wired.co.uk. Feb. 20, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://www.wired.co.uk/reviews/gadgets/2012-02/motorola-motoactv
- Rieland, Randy. "Next Up? The Smart Watch." Smithsonian.com. April 20, 2012. (May 19, 2012) http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/ideas/2012/04/next-up-the-smart-watch/
- Sony.com. "SmartWatch Model number MN2SW." (May 19, 2012) http://store.sony.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?catalogId=10551&storeId=10151&langId=-1&partNumber=MN2SW
- Taggart, Stewart. "Swatch Tests Smart-Watch Uses." Wired. Aug. 20, 1997. (May 19, 2012) http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/1997/08/6220