Death by a thousand OSes: complexity will kill the smartwatch

We need killer apps, not awful experiences

There's a bit in The Simpsons where Homer puts his hand on a red-hot cooker. "Ow," he says, before putting his hand back on it. "Ow." "Ow." "Ow." Tech firms are a bit like that.

You'd think after the fragmentation problems and sub-standard experiences that plagued early Android, tech firms would make customer delight their number one priority in the new smartwatch sector.

Nope.

With the greatest respect to Pebble, smartwatches are mainly a two-horse race between Apple and Google. Quality is ensured by Apple's refusal to let anybody other than Apple make the devices and by Google's insistence that manufacturers can't mess up Android Wear. No more fragmentation! No more crappy skins! No more manufacturers making things crap for no good reason!

Unfortunately the manufacturers don't seem too keen on that. LG's decided to put WebOS into its incoming smartwatch, because it puts WebOS into everything. Sit down in LG's headquarters for too long and it'll install WebOS in your trousers. Alcatel isn't doing Android Wear either because it's French. And Samsung's continuing to stuff Tizen into everything like a demented taxidermist. That matters, because a fragmented market doesn't help anybody. Just look at TVs.

Smart TVs are stupid but car stuff is clever

Smart TV is a mess of incompatible operating systems, and while some are better than others we've essentially got a whole bunch of different operating systems offering the same basic features.

You can see the same thing in cars, where in-car systems are often rubbish. But Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto promise to change that. It doesn't really matter what OS the cars run because the manufacturers' systems are merely acting as input/output devices for Apple or Google apps. Car firms can and probably will try to mess that up a bit, but there's only so much damage they can do. That's what Google wanted with Android Wear, but it seems that some manufacturers want to use their own OSes.

I think that's a mistake.

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History repeating

The reviews suggest I'm right. Take Alcatel's Watch, for example. Hardware-wise it looks pretty good, but the reviews I've seen so far say that its Java-based OS isn't. It's not as responsive as Android Wear, or as easy to use, the reviews say. The navigation is different, and the icons aren't obvious.

It's a similar story with the Samsung Gear 2, which we found was let down by its Tizen software. A luxury purchase whose notifications system "irritates the life out of me", whose user interface is "convoluted" and whose bugs include "a gruesome piece of software glitchery" is a product that should only be bought by masochists.

I understand the desire for differentiation, but change for the sake of change is pointless if it means a lesser experience. There's a reason why Ford doesn't try to differentiate itself from VW by putting its cars' steering wheels in the back and the seats on the roof.

Too much, too young

The rush to alternative OSes and different ways of doing things is a worry because this is a nascent product category. If smartwatches are to become must-have devices there are lots of things that need to be addressed before they stand a chance of becoming truly mainstream.

The most important one is simplicity. If the smartwatch experience is one of software updates, inconsistent interfaces and proprietary apps, that's bad for the entire category.

Going back to our TVs again, there's a reason why Google's on its third TV takeover attempt while Apple's "hobby", the Apple TV, is a billion-dollar business despite relatively little investment: the competition between TV firms has meant that instead of a single, Android-style standard, we've had a whole bunch of competing ones without a clear leader emerging. As is so often the case, that's left the door open for Apple to gobble up all the money - and I suspect the same might well happen in smartwatches.

I'm not arguing that firms should make me-too products with little to tell them apart, but in the unseemly rush to carve out a niche before Apple comes stomping in I do wonder if firms are trying to do too much, too quickly. By all means show us what you're capable of, but maybe, just maybe, it's worth getting the hang of the walking thing before you start to sprint.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Contributor

Former lion tamer, Girls Aloud backing dancer and habitual liar Gary Marshall (Twitter, Google+) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to .net, MacFormat, Tap! and Official Windows Magazine as well as co-writing stacks of how-to tech books. "My job is to cut through the crap," he says. "And there's a lot of crap."