Smartwatch wars: Apple Watch vs. Fossil Sport Smartwatch

The first real challenger in the smartwatch segment (of what will be many) just hit the market and, on spec, it’s a far better watch than the Apple Watch is.

Apple Watch Series 4

I believe the evolution of the PC/smartphone will pass through wearable devices on its way to surgically embedded technology (and maybe eventually bio-engineered technology).  Currently, the Apple Watch leads the wearable segment, but it under-performs its potential both because Apple locks it to the iPhone (ignoring the other 2/3rds of the smartphone segment which might consider it) and because it sucks as a watch.

This doesn’t mean that the Apple Watch is a bad product. On the contrary — it’s pretty amazing. But the iPod wouldn’t have been as successful had it instead been called the Apple Walkman, because the Walkman was known as a CD player and the iPod certainly wasn’t that. (Remember: The Walkman was the dominant music player prior to the iPod, much like a watch was the dominant wrist worn device prior to the Apple Watch.)

Well the first real challenger (of what will be many) just hit the market and, on spec, it’s a far better watch than the Apple Watch is.  It’s from Fossil, who’s in the business of making watches, and it both looks like a watch and largely leads with telling time. It’s called the Fossil Sport Smartwatch

Wrist-worn computer

Let’s face it: The Apple Watch is closer to a wearable iPod than it is a watch. It’s basically a wrist-worn media device with some powerful additional features like a mini (and limited) electrocardiogram and fall detection capability. It can even stand alone, depending on version, and not require close proximity to an iPhone to work.

However, there’s been a lot of work done in this area and the ultimate device that I’ve seen was out of HP labs and built for the military [Disclosure: HP is a client of the author.] It was basically a full-on wrist-worn mini-computer that you wore inside your wrist rather than outside. It had a decent-sized transflective display (HP once led with technology that doesn’t require back lighting) and it provided a variety of features. These features included communication, GPS navigation, battlefield updates, alerts (i.e., orders), and had battery life measured in days. All it needed were lasers to make it into something Tony Stark might create.

It never came to market, a product that came closer was called the Rufus Cuff which was more like a Smartphone for the wrist.  It also had a full sixed screen, was worn inside rather than outside the wrist, and the effort raised half a million dollars on Indiegogo.   But, once again the product never shipped (which was particularly annoying for me because I bought one).  

Clearly the Apple Watch made it to market but, as amazing as it is, I think it not only suffers because of its name and iPhone restriction but because of its small screen, where you wear it (outside the wrist is really awkward for a device you need to touch to operate), and because it generally has a blacked-out screen to conserve power. 

The smartwatch

As I wrote about in “Smartwatches finally evolve into a viable platform,” if you’re going to call something a watch it should first and foremost be a great watch. That means it is as much about making you look good as it is about telling time.  Watches — particularly those costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars — are status symbols.  You don’t buy a Rolex just to tell time, you buy one to show off that you’re affluent. It’s a huge status symbol, but part of what makes the watch good male (or female) jewelry is how the face looks…and a blacked-out face isn’t particularly awe-inspiring. 

One of the most popular watch lines is from Invicta. They are, quite simply, personal jewelry (I particularly like the new Superhero lines). 

A watch is worn outside your wrist because it’s more about being seen than about usage. It’s quick an easy to tell time with one, and it traditionally has battery life measured in months or years. While it can have a different shape, it’s most commonly circular. 

The Fossil Sport Smartwatch looks like a nice watch — and I believe this is critical to something you call a “watch,” smart or otherwise. Fossil’s been in this market for a while and knows how to design a watch.  It uses the Qualcomm 3100 platform, which is the first in their series that meets what I think are the requirements for a smartwatch. [Disclosure: Qualcomm is a client of the author.] One of the key features is a display that can remain on all the time.

Battery life is still way below being measured in months or years, like with a regular watch, but it has GPS, which has been problematic with most other smartwatches because it requires so much power.   But if you crank down a lot of the features (including GPS, which you generally only need occasionally), you should be able to get to three days of battery life (like with my Fitbit Versa, which lacks many of the Fossil’s features).

Wrapping up:  two very different products

I think of the Apple watch as more of an iPod for your wrist.  It is really far from the ideal of where it should eventually evolve to due to a too-small screen and outside wrist placement. In effect, it’s a wearable computer with watch-like features. The Fossil is closer to what a watch needs to be, and, except for battery life, it’s far closer to an evolved watch. In effect, it’s a watch with computer-like features. 

I think that distinction is important. If you’re replacing a watch then you’ll likely appreciate the Fossil more. If you want an iPod on your wrist — and many do — and already have an iPhone, the Apple watch is your best choice.  If the electrocardiograph was better, I’d also say the Apple Watch would also be critical to those with heart problems (and it may be critical but the medical reports I’ve seen have been mixed on the device and when it comes to someone’s heart that makes me a bit nervous). 

Given the Apple Watch is trying to be something it isn’t, I don’t think it will evolve well.  The Fossil Watch is, first and foremost, a watch which makes it closer to the ideal connected to its name.  Ironically, because it really isn’t a watch, I think the Apple Watch is closer to what we’ll eventually end up with, but, because it’s called a watch, Apple will make decisions about its evolution that will hamper that evolution.  We already know watches, and not a ton of evolution is needed, which is why the Fossil is closer to the smartwatch ideal.

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