The i’m Watch could almost be an Apple product: It’s shiny, metallic, contains a curved-glass color touchscreen suggesting old-gen iPod Nanos, and runs apps in a tiny mobile operating system. Almost. But a few giveaways are baked into this smartwatch that remind you it’s no Cupertino affair. The sluggish UI, for example, would never be tolerated by Tim Cook and Co. Still, with Apple rumored to be entering the smartwatch game (along with arch-rival Samsung, Google, LG, and seemingly everyone else) there are a ton of lessons to be learned from this $299 Italian-made curiosity.
I know because I recently spent a month wearing one. It gets a number of things right, and it surpasses some of the functions of a simple “companion” watch. But it also gets plenty wrong. All of which gives us clues about the course Apple (and Samsung and pals) will have to master if their own smartwatches are to succeed. Plenty is at stake here. Succeed and they’ve just created a new international consumer product category. Failure, on the other hand, is very expensive.
I’m Watch: It’s fairly attractive, and has the heft of high quality. But the device is undeniably huge, and its square bulk keeps getting stuck on my sleeves. Using a wrist computer such as this is absolutely practical, however, so long as you don’t try to dab at its screen to, say, compose a lengthy email. The curved touchscreen certainly eases use.
What this means: It’s a good thing Apple’s got a patent for a skinny slap bracelet-style iWatch on the books. Smaller, thinner and less noticeable area all good things here–think as unobtrusive as a Fitbit. Samsung has also been chasing skinny form factors in its phones, so it can perhaps play the same game.
I’m Watch: It’s surprisingly useful, though it’s a bit startling when your wrist “rings.” It’s also helpful to know if you’ve got a tweet alert, and to be able to see what an email is about at a single glance. Listening to music via the watch also works well, and having a headphone cable run to your wrist is preferable to a hard-to-reach jean pocket.
What this means for rival smartwatches: Make your watch useful rather than gimmicky. Several utilitarian functions, each well executed, are better than a single killer app (like BlackBerry mail). Samsung, if the feature-jammed Galaxy S4 is any indication, will have to be careful here.
I’m Watch: It’s all about apps, of course. The i’m Watch offers quite a few, including an Instagram viewer and several games. Having a digital shopping list on your wrist is useful, using the watch as a “torch” for lighting the dark really isn’t. Of course Apple/Samsung will be able to pull in top-rank smartphone and tablet app makers. Despite a few missteps, though, the i’m Watch apps deliver utility and even a little fun. The way they’re managed, however, via a web interface on a separate computer, is absolutely awful and cumbersome.
How Apple or Samsung could beat this: Apps need to be managed on the device itself and app discovery should happen this way too. But if you can get great app designers on board writing utility apps and even games, then you’ll have users downloading them exactly as they do for phones and tablets.
I’m Watch: The battery life isn’t too bad–the device often shuts its screen off to preserve energy and automatically powers down overnight. But using it causes a sort of ticking time-bomb effect in your mind: You’re aware that every minute it’s eating into its useful “on” time. And all those power-offs are annoying as you have to push its buttons to wake it. The i’m Watch uses an older Bluetooth protocol, and it kept dropping my phone’s connections. Its pared-down OS is certainly compatible with the phone’s chips…but it’s not as slick in use as even the simplest iPod is, and more sophisticated apps would be impossible on it.
How other smartwatches could succeed: Better battery life, born through dedicated chip design, a tightly managed OS, and tweaks like better display tech and Bluetooth 4 will help. Apple already excels at this on its iPhone and iPad. Both Apple and Samsung have enough expertise in custom mobile chips to make this work.
I’m Watch: The thing is as delicate and exposed as a daffodil. That’s a problem.
Lessons for Apple, Samsung, and Others: Make these devices resilient, or at least hard to damage. They’ll be exposed to more harmful elements than smartphones, and users will get seriously disenchanted if their smartwatch breaks within weeks.
I’m Watch: It doesn’t have it. I noticed that strangers were briefly interest when they spotted it, and the first day of use was fun in a novel sort of way. But then the UI problems and limited app store kicked in and it becomes a marginally useful extra tool, sometimes handy when you don’t want to fish a phone out of a pocket. That’s not enough.
How others can fix this: Perhaps a combination of gesture interface control or the same sort of personality as Siri is supposed to have, or even the prescience of Google Now. It absolutely has to be cleverer than a neat-looking digital watch running limited apps. Jony Ive can almost certainly cook up something like this inside Apple. It will be interesting to see if he does.