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Apple and Google are chasing a 35-year smartwatch dream

It was way back in December 1979 that LA's Windert Watch Company announced the first iWatch style smartwatch, and much of what was promised then calls the bell on what's expected from future wearables from Apple, Google and others.

Apple and Google are chasing a 35-year smartwatch dream

[ABOVE: Left: 1979s Windert Communicator; Top right, Moto 360 Android-powered watch; Bottom right: First iPhone goes on sale in London in 2007, and an Apple logo, because we all think they're up to something...]

Solar-powered talking timepiece

As you'd expect the Windert Communicator was based on older technologies and wasn't capable of delivering everything we now expect from wearable computing, but a December 1979 p.22 Omni Magazine news item says enough.

Bob Guccione's legendary popular science title told us of the Windert Communicator, a sub-$100 "solar-powered talking watch that not only literally tells the time but also nags you awake with alarm messages." (It was a step up from digital watches at that time).

The watch promised a then incredibly impressive 64k memory chip, "twice as big as anything now on the market". (In context, the $1,195 Apple II Plus available at that time supported "up to" 64k memory).

It's not clear if the device ever shipped. It was mentioned as a new product once again in a 1983 report while the company closed amid legal wrangles in 1987. Despite this nearly 35-years later the predictions of the man behind the device, Alex Weiss, echo what we expect from iWatch:

"Second-generation talking watches and clocks will be externally programmable and voice-identifiable," the report claimed. "It's only a matter of time before the Dick Tracy watch makes its appearance," said Weiss. "Once we get to work on it, we'll have watches with TV screens and voice transmitters. The future is wide open."

It is only relatively recently that technology has evolved to realize some of these expectations. The upcoming breeds of wearable device inherit this 35-year old vision alongside microelectronics innovation only dreamed of then.

Intimations of the future

Even then, the Communicator hinted at what we expect today:

  • Advanced power management. Solar? Kinetic energy?
  • Programmable with third-party apps
  • Voice control and voice output
  • Intelligent alarms
  • TV screens
  • Sensors?
  • Voice transmitters…

The sad truth is that until wearable devices host their own processors and function independently of another mobile device they will be nothing but geek gadget toys. It will only be when you can use a wearable device to replace your iPad, iPhone or other mobile system that the era of wearable technology will truly begin.

We need a cannibal

Beyond certain niche functions, wearable solutions are unlikely to achieve mass-market status until they cannibalize existing mobile device markets. Until they do savvy consumers will recognize that they may as well use their existing mobile device and skip the wearable. Almost everyone wants a smartphone, but only people with a smartphone will be able to consider a wearable device.

The implication here is that the first big mobile technology firm prepared to cannibalize its existing mobile device market with a wearable computer that replaces its own devices will be the company that defines wearable computing.

Given its track record in cannibalization, I have a hunch which company that will be, though despite coming from a similar direction, it won't be the Windert Watch Company. All the same I continue to believe that in order to understand the future, first you should look to the past.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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