Here come the smartwatch wars

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This week the battle of the smartwatches began in earnest. Google announced Google Wear, a flavour of the Android operating system tailored to wrist-worn devices. On the same day, Motorola took the wraps off of the Moto 360, a stylish round smartwatch that tastefully mixes tech and fashion. 

And, screenshots of Apple's Healthbook have leaked. Healthbook is an app that is rumoured to be part of the software suite in the next iPhone. The app can track steps, heart rate, blood pressure and other health metrics. It's assumed that some of that health data will be collected via sensors in an iWatch -- a product Apple has yet to announce. But, that launch seems very likely given the design, retail and medical experts Apple has been hiring.

Google-based watches, like the Moto 360, and others coming from LG and Fossil, will be built around predictive notifications and a voice interface. What that means is that they will really be Google Now watches. Google Now is the remarkable just-in-time notifications technology built into Android. If you use Google to search for a flight and a hotel, Google Now will let you know flight info when you arrive at the airport and show you directions and travel time to the hotel when you touch down in a new city.

For a screen worn on your wrist, these kinds of when-you-need-it notifications make a ton of sense. A watch is an interface you take in at a glance. You don't want to spend time searching for info, you want it to be delivered to you. In other words, as technology writer Andy Ihnatko says, you want your watch and its notifications to act like a valet -- a Jeeves for your activities of daily living.

The Google smartwatches are also meant to be spoken to. The watches, working wirelessly with your Android phone, will convert your speech to text for responses to text messages or for voice queries like "show me the nearest sushi restaurants." And, the watches are not only context aware, but also can sense what activity you're doing. Running in an airport, dancing in a club etc.

So, Google watches seem to be about augmenting and assisting with the lives of busy people.

If Apple launches an iWatch, it appears it will be more focussed on health than help. Certainly Siri, the Apple equivalent to Google Now, isn't a good valet. Siri knows a lot, but doesn't intuit well. So, it may not be the best interlocutor for a watch interface. And, we know that Tim Cook and other Apple execs are quite keen on the Nike Fuelband, and have done great partnerships with Nike in the past (Nike+, for example). And Apple has hired Marcelo Malini Lamego, the former CTO of a medical device company, and Michael O'Reilly, the former chief medical officer and executive VP for medical affairs at Masimo, a company known for non-invasive medical monitoring hardware.

Healthbook certainly appears to be strong evidence of a health focus for Apple, but it's not clear what role, if any, Apple's wristwatch will play in data acquisition. Certainly, some data, like glucose levels, can't be measured without some degree of invasion.

But, Apple has a history of zigging when others zag -- in terms of functionality, industrial design and interface. It may be that Cupertino doesn't buy the whole idea of the Google-style wrist-valet. It may be, as Craig Hockenberry suggests, Apple's not interested in a watch at all.

Whatever it turns out to be, the iWatch is certainly not in the same position the iPhone was in. The iPhone was Apple's entry into an entrenched market burdened with ugly, hard-to-use handsets that was ripe for disruption.

The smartwatch market is brand new. Early entries like the Pebble, the Samsung Gear or Sony's Smartwatch 2 or the Cookoo were clunky nerd bling. But the coming watches from Motorola, LG and Fossil appear to be extremely attractive and beautifully machined hardware that would look fine on a hipster's wrist. 

And, as importantly, the Google Wear interface appears graphically appealing, sparse and intuitive. I have no doubt that Apple's own watch will be elegant and fashionable as well, but the gap between Apple's industrial design and the products from HTC, Nokia and Motorola has narrowed dramatically. It won't be a cakewalk this time.

The Google-based smartwatches won't be out until later this year. The iWatch, if it's real, will be announced in the fall, at the earliest, I think. 

And with all things technological, execution is everything. If the battery life on the devices suck or you have to turn the watch on with a physical button the device will be stillborn.

But, whatever shape the watches take, and whatever their functionality, this month will be remembered as the day Wristwatch War One was declared.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Pierre Lecourt/flickr

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