Design

The Smartwatch through History: Great Idea, Mediocre Product

by Jonathan Poritsky

September 9, 2014

Today, Apple, those tastemakers in Cupertino everyone loves to hate to love, will announce some sort of “smart” wearable device, along with the much-anticipated sixth incarnation of the iPhone. Though no one’s quite sure what the gadget will exactly be, techies and rumormongers have dubbed it the “iWatch,” and the New York Times reports it will have fitness-tracking capabilities and employ new wireless technology to make paying for things with a mobile device a whole lot easier.

Way back in 1979, Douglas Adams wrote that humans are “so amazingly primitive…they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” People do seem to be suckers for tarted-up wristwear; history is littered with devices that have tried to strap as much technology as possible onto one’s arm, from calculators to remote controls to Rolodexes to entire PalmPilots. Smartwatches have been “the future” for almost 50 years, but aside from some memorable pop culture moments and a few passing fad successes, all of the attempts to make the smartwatch a mainstay of modern life have failed to catch on.

These major milestones in the history of the smartwatch are a brief tour through the last 50 years of wristwear styles, and a menagerie of both clever and half-clever ideas. With these precedents, can Apple finally get us to strap computers on our wrists?  

Pulsar Time Computer Calculator

Widely regarded (though with some debate) as the first calculator watch, at the time of its release, the $2100, 18-karat gold Pulsar Time Computer Calculator was luxury incarnate, the kind of thing you’d see on the classy wrist of, say, an Oleg Cassini or Vidal Sassoon. When the Time Computer shipped in 1975, the digital watch was still a new concept. Time was a pretty hot commodity in the 70s; busy folks didn’t have a moment to spare, and had to resort to handy abbreviations like BTO, ELP, and CREEP, just to get by. By 70s standards, the Time Computer practically transformed its owners into futuristic supermen, free from the cruel drudgery of having to reach into one’s pocket or desk to retrieve a calculator, and able to compute restaurant gratuities at lightning speed. Unfortunately, the device was just too expensive, and the flat, inconvenient buttons kept this watch from ever catching on with the average Tom, Tricky Dick, or Debbie Harry.

Casio C-80

In 1980, the $49 Casio C-80 Calculator Chronograph forever changed the face of the smartwatch. The iconic Japanese wearable boasted a stopwatch, a calendar, and the first calculator with raised keys, spaced, as an advertisement proudly proclaimed, “far enough apart that even the broadest fingers can work them.” While this was good news for The Fat Boys, Fat Albert, and George Wendt, famously it was Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, the relatively thin-fingered truant time traveler from Back to the Future, who launched the watch’s mainstream popularity. And though one might think that a calculator watch would be more useful to those who spent the 1980s hocking leveraged buyouts, the C-80 was primarily a youth trend, a perfect nerd accessory for an age that celebrated the geeky savants of movies like Weird Science, War Games, and Real Genius.

Timex Datalink

Released in 1994 in collaboration with Microsoft, the Timex Datalink was an attempt to put a PDA on your wrist. It was capable of syncing phone numbers, reminders, and calendar items from your computer wirelessly, but to do so, the watch had to be physically held up to the monitor while the Datalink read coded flashes of light from the screen. It was an awkward technology for an awkward time: Pauly Shore roamed the earth unchecked, Salt-N-Pepa and Lisa Loeb terrorized the airwaves, and Americans, still mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, had only the affable, libidinous clowning of then-President Bill Clinton to bolster their spirits. But ’94 was in fact a fertile breeding ground for new wireless devices—everyone was walking around with beepers, clunky, brick-sized cell phones were making their debut, and DirectTV launched its new satellite television service. Though Timex came out with several evolving versions over the next 10 years and the Datalink was actually certified by NASA for use during space travel, the smartwatch failed once again to become a popular accouterment for the general public. 

The Bubble Watches

In late 1999, as CD-ROMs loaded with 45 free minutes of AOL were piling up in homes across America, then-HP CEO Carly Fiorina announced a partnership with timepiece giant Swatch, to develop web-enabled watches that would make the internet “friendly, useful, and personal.” In 2000, IBM revealed its “WatchPad” project, which it would update and tease over the next few years. The WatchPad never left the testing phase, and HP never even presented a concept for their device. These stillborn watches were symptoms of the high-flying hubris of tech companies during the dot-com bubble and ultimate bust. (For example, Yahoo! bought Geocities, a now defunct and meaningless property for $3.57 billion, or three-and-a-half Instagrams.) Gen-Xers, still trying to figure out what the hell a Napster was and scurrying around in abject terror at the looming threat of Y2K, were suffering from tech fatigue—could they really cram one more futuristic trinket onto their Black Friday shopping lists? To this day, Fiorina’s friendly, idealistic internet remains elusive.

Fossil WRIST PDA

In the late-1990s/early-2000s, the PalmPilot PDA represented the height of digital sophistication. Only the true masters of the business world were fluent in its inscrutable Graffiti handwriting input. By 2003, the economy was bouncing back from the dot-com bubble to the sound of R. Kelly’s Ignition (Remix), fresh, exciting wars were getting underway, and inflating housing and derivative markets promised a new era of prosperity that would surely never end. Ordinary citizens, still enamored of the obnoxious oligarchs of Wall Street, were ready for the WRIST PDA, Bluetooth headsets, and the return of popped polo shirt collars, which would mark wearers as serious people with places to be and stock prices to check. Though WIRED hyped the WRIST PDA in a 2003 feature story, the device ran into major delays and suffered terrible reviews when it finally shipped two years later.

Pebble

The Pebble is perhaps the most significant smartwatch released to date. In 2012, the team building it raised $10.2 million on Kickstarter, making it, at that time, the most successful crowdfunding project ever. The idea was to build a smartwatch with a low-energy "e-paper" display that could last an entire week on a single charge. And as Hurricane Sandy powered down the eastern seaboard, and people worldwide wondered whether they could accept a new big-screen Spiderman into their hearts, it suddenly became clear: Over 66,000 individuals had ordered this thing without ever seeing it in person—we were ready. Sometime in the middle of Obama’s first term, squeezed in between the ACA and Benghazi, the public had hit critical smartwatch mass. Now, even though a substantial amount of Pebbles have shipped, you rarely see them out in the wild, and reviews have been mixed. Nonetheless, this was the gadget that inspired the current wearable device gold rush, and probably finally convinced giants like Apple to jump into the smartwatch fray.

Android Wear

It was just a few months ago, and the summer was heating up—Donald Sterling was still the most hated man in America, Iggy Azalea was still in the Murda Bizness, and tech behemoth Google had just introduced their new platform, Android Wear. But instead of building their own watches, Google set out to create the software that will be on all smartwatches; think Windows for your wrist. Companies like Samsung, LG, and Motorola have already announced devices running Android Wear, all of which focus on two main points: a connection to your phone and constantly updated notifications. Text from a friend? You get a zap. Near the dry cleaners and need to pick up your pants? Zap. Google, whose original motto was famously “don’t be evil,” and whose current motto is “give us all your personal information, and no one gets hurt,” has been tinkering with its own version of the wearable, the Google Glass face computer, which the company released last year to riotous, maudlin effect.

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The Smartwatch through History: Great Idea, Mediocre Product