Homeless in Vancouver: The return of pagers—now with straps
Before cellular phones in the 1980s, pagers were the popular mobile device for professionals: little instruments with tiny alphanumeric readouts that notified you when someone called your land line.
Remember? No? Ask an old person, or a health-care professional.
Cellphones made pagers obsolete more than 20 years ago, but they’re back again, retooled for the social media of the 21st century.
And the irony? The simple dumb phones that killed pagers evolved into complicated smartphones that are giving them a new lease on life.
Today’s pagers still notify you of calls to your phone number; they also notify you of incoming SMS text messages or email or any social media nods—they’re all over Twitter and Facebook notifications.
Most of them can “dial” your phone; many of them can play MP3 files; and all of them can tell the time.
And “pagers” were so 20th century—they’ve changed their name to “smartwatches”.
Smartphones and smartwatches?
Anyone who’s older than a leaky Vancouver condo should feel a twinge of recognition when they see any of the new smartwatches in action.
The trio of top contending products—the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Sony’s Smartwatch 2, and the Pebble—all bring to mind 21st-century pagers with watch straps—they’re all notification engines with additional features.
Smartwatches do not replace a cellphone. They need to be paired via Bluetooth to a smartphone to perform their most important functions, like notifications or receiving or making phone calls. Otherwise they’re variously-capable offline Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).
In a real way they’re kin to the decade-old idea of the PDA watch, but using new tech. Their only really new qualities are the features they piggyback off when they’re paired to a smartphone. Ironically they get their pager functions from the phones.
They’re expensive wrist-mounted hardware interfaces for smartphones, with tiny information-challenged screens. I, for one, thought we’d put those behind us when we left the 20th century.
Smartwatches could replace your old dumb watch if you haven’t already replaced it with your cellphone.
Galaxy Class flagship of smartwatches
The first thing Samsung set about doing after the flashy launch of its (U.S.)$300 Galaxy Gear smartwatch was fixing the firmware so it could actually do the email and social media notifications the device was supposed to be so good at.
By now, I understand it can display new Gmail messages, but this most important feature—rich social-media notifications—isn’t that rich.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear costs about (U.S.)$300. It weighs 74 grams and features a 1.63-inch backlit Super AMOLED touchscreen with a resolution of 320 by 320. It has no water resistance. Samsung rates the battery life at only 25 hours but reviews peg it at at least two days.
The Gear pairs via Bluetooth 4.0 with a variety of Samsung Android smartphones. It has 1.9-megapixel camera in the strap, 4GB of memory, a speaker, two microphones, accelerometer, and gyroscope.
It doesn’t have GPS. It runs applications but thus far, there are under 100 available for the Gear.
It does tell time and has a selection of watch faces to choose from.
So many reviewers, like this one, have taken the Gear very seriously and gone the extra distance to find positive things to say, even if they don’t quite know why they or anyone else would want one.
That's because they believe what Samsung apparently believes, that Apple will, any day now, unveil its own take on a smartwatch, which everyone will want, thus creating a new consumer electronics category that Samsung can compete in. So good for Samsung trying to get a jump on Apple.
Some other smarties in the same class
Sony’s Smartwatch 2 casts about (U.S.)$199. It weighs 48 to 123 grams, depending on strap type.
It’s 1.6-inch backlit transflective LCD touchscreen has a resolution of 220 by 176. It has an IP57 rating for water resistance. It reportedly gets two to three days of battery life on a full charge.
The Smartwatch 2 pairs with any Android 4.0 phone via Bluetooth. It doesn’t appear to have a microphone, or be able to take or make phone calls via the paired smartphone. It has no camera but can control the phone’s camera. It can be used to lock and unlock the paired phone.
Otherwise it appears to principally be a notifications engine. There are over 300 apps for the SmartWatch available, including official apps for Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail.
It can receive email, social-network, text-message, and calendar notifications by default, and third-party apps can add many other notification features. In general, the notifications don’t sound that “rich”. Emails, for instance, can’t be deleted, archived or marked as read from the watch; all the user gets is the sender, subject, and a few lines of the message.
On its own, the SmartWatch 2 can tell the time and be used as a stopwatch. It only comes with five analog or digital watch faces.
The Pebble costs about (U.S.)$150, and weighs 38 grams. It features a 1-bit (black and white) 144 by 160 pixel paperlike display. It has a waterproof rating of five atm so you can take it in the shower, the tub or for a swim. It boasts a seven-day battery life.
The Pebble pairs with Android and iOS smartphones via Bluetooth. It doesn’t take or make phone calls and it has no camera. It is designed for notifications—and apparently it does them very well.
There are hundreds of available apps and watch faces. It also has features allowing it to replace a handlebar-mounted cycling computer.
The Pebble will still function as a watch without being paired to a smartphone. It will be able to use any preloaded apps that do not require GPS or any additional data from the Internet.
In addition, the Pebble is a crowd-funded, open-source Linux device. Kind of the underdog against Samsung and Sony. But it has the best feature set for its purpose.
I can easily see how good it would be for a cyclist who commutes. It’s screen is perfect for sunlight. The device is waterproof and durable. And it’s the cheapest of the three.
A smartwatch that replaces a smartphone?
QOne’s SmartWatch WristPhone just cuts out the middleware aspect of smartwatches by actually being an unlocked GSM sim card cellphone. It has a 1.3-megapixel camera and a little 240 by 240 backlit screen.
It also plays music, has a micro SD card slot and a very limited selection of organizer-style apps: calendar, phonebook, tasks, file manager, and calculator.
Five years ago Asia was overflowing with tiny wrist-mouted touchscreen cellphones—probably still is.
Apple watchers—Cupertino's been there, done that
Personally, I think people should stop holding their breath in anticipation of an “iWatch”.
Apple brought out a pretty fair smartwatch between 2010 and 2012. It had a multitouch colour screen, played music, displayed images, had an FM radio, a pedometer and told the time.
It was called an iPod Nano (6th Generation). You could get a very nice selection of watch straps for it. It didn’t pair with an iPhone or do notifications.
Perhaps Apple pulled the one watch-factor product out of its iLineup to make room for a future smartwatch, but I don’t think so.
I’ll be surprised if Apple comes out with a smartwatch with a principal function of pairing to a phone like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Apple would have to think their iOS had a broken interface if it felt it needed a completely separate device to complete the user experience.
Also, with the near-exception of the Pebble, all the smartwatches I’ve read up on appear to be a swarm of standard PDA/phone features attempting to settle on the wrist for lack of anywhere better to go.
That's because conventional wisdom says wearable computing is the future. It’s all a bit fuzzy.
Apple famously neither does conventional wisdom nor fuzzy. It's not prone to just throwing features at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s what I think its competitors are doing with smartwatches.
One of my pet theories is that Apple’s real competition, Google, jumped all over a wearable eyewear display system for four reasons:
- Google has more money than it knows what to do with.
- The Google Glass project could produce all sorts of spin-offs and patents.
- Just possibly a viable commercial product could come out of it.
- And this will tie up the name “Glass” so Apple couldn’t come to market with a wearable computer called an iGlass.