Predicting the Smartphone in 1989 — as the Smartwatch

March 25th, 2013 by Benj Edwards

Seiko UC-2000 Semi-Smartwatch

While researching my slideshow on smartwatch history for TechHive last month, I came across an interesting 1989 letter to Computerworld magazine. It was a response to an earlier article in the publication about the inevitability of a wearable watch-sized microcomputer.

I find the letter prescient because its author imagines the consequences of walking around with a full-blown networked computer on your wrist. And he was right about his predictions in every regard except one: instead of computers on our wrists, we’re walking around with computers in our pockets. In other words, smartphones.

But that’s the nature of predicting the future. You can often get the general trends correct without knowing the details. Nobody in 1989 had any idea that the cell phone, instead of the watch, would first become the vehicle through which we’d wear tiny networked computers on our persons almost every hour of the day.

Here’s the full letter:

Watch it

“From fancy to fact” [CW, Aug. 14] prompted me to think of the other scenarios that we all may go through when “the computers may become a basic part of one’s attire, as essential and un-extraordinary as a wristwatch.”

We all know the pleasure and pains of running our life according to watches. Is wearing a watch an ordinary event? I think we have given away our liberty and freedom to the second hand that slowly creeps forward to remind us of our next office meeting, the appointment with the dentist or the bills we have to pay.

If the wristwatches have invaded our freedom and liberty, imagine what the wrist computer can do to our life. We will be in constant touch with our office. Imagine all the work we will be forced to accomplish when we wait in the airport to catch a plane! Imagine streets full of people walking around staring intensely at their wrists to know the latest Dow Jones average or the latest baseball score! Just as we sneak to look at somebody else’s watch to see the time, others will start to sneak a peek at other’s wrist computers.

We may certainly have all the good things this new technology can offer. At the same time, however, we should look at other problems and opportunities this new technology may bring us.

Chetan S. Sankar
Management Department
Auburn University
Auburn, Ala.

Chetan S. SankarThe author of the letter, Chetan S. Sankar, still works at Auburn University. I emailed him last month to see what he thought about his letter, and he said he’d get students in one of his classes to respond to my questions. Since it’s been a while since I’ve heard back from him, I thought I’d go ahead and share this letter. I’ll post an update if he gets back to me.

Personally, I am not optimistic about the future of the smartwatch. I find nothing about the concept more attractive than having a pocket smartphone with a larger touchscreen that works as a multipurpose device.

Perhaps Apple or some other company will hit upon a completely novel way to use a smartwatch that will make it irresistible to consumers (I could not have predicted the iPhone, for example). But unless something radical changes about a smartwatch interface (direct neural link, perhaps?), I don’t think the smartwatch will be the future. If I had to bet, I’d say that the future of wearable computing will look more like Google Glass than a wristwatch.

It will be fun to check back in a few years and see if I will be eating my words.

14 Responses to “Predicting the Smartphone in 1989 — as the Smartwatch”

  1. arlandi Says:

    maybe if the future smartwatch has a holographic projector with stabilizer???

  2. idisjunction Says:

    I think the main advantage for a smartwatch over Google Glass is that if it’s ugly, it’s not as noticeable, and you can hide it under your sleeve (well, maybe not that Web-@nywhere one). Also, a persistent display would be distracting to me, while good watches can be ignored until needed.

    P.S. – I see you chose the watch I complimented earlier for the article picture. 🙂

  3. Benj Edwards Says:

    I think if the electronics of a smartphone were contained in a watch-sized device strapped to the wrist and the display were somehow beamed into your eyeball unobtrusively, then the smartwatch will be more popular than a smartphone form factor. Then you can hide the actual electronics wherever you want and still see a display when you want it.

    On the other hand, if the smartwatch is just a quick way to check info that’s on your smartphone (as many recent smartwatches have been), then I don’t think it will ever be a mainstream gadget. It’s already pretty easy to just pull your smartphone from your pocket and check stuff quickly; easy enough not to warrant a second device to buy, charge, maintain just so you can glance at your wrist every once and a while.

  4. Eagles409 Says:

    In the mid 90s I had a watch that would store data from your computer. I forget who made it, probably Casio. The cool part about it was that you ran a program on your computer, then held the watch up to the screen of the computer. The screen would blink and go all crazy like a disco ball for a bit, then when it was done, the information would be on the phone. At the time it was pretty cool.

  5. Benj Edwards Says:

    Timex Datalink, Eagles409. It’s in the slideshow — check the link in the first sentence of the post.

  6. Eagles409 Says:

    Thanks Benj. I was so mesmerized by the Seiko watch on the main picture that I didn’t even see the link to the slide show.

  7. Judith Says:

    I’m not ready to write off the smartwatch. If you’re as fond of Android’s Voice recognition as I am, you’ll be able to imagine lifting your wrist and saying “Time” or “Temp” instead of rooting in your pocket. I suspect there are other simple things that don’t need a keyboard or visual display – notices, etc. If you add a biotracker – sleep, calories burned, steps taken/calories burned – all in one device, I think it has a future. Smart Phones aren’t wearable computers – they’re carryable. Someone will come up wit the true wearable, it’s just not here yet.

    An aside – am I the only person who imagines Scotty talking into the mouse every time I talk into my Nexus? 😉

  8. Daniel Says:

    You can buy an Android 2.2 wearable watch smartphone on E-bay…

  9. Benj Edwards Says:

    Very cool, Daniel. That’s what I call and ultra-super-nerd watch.

  10. Daniel Says:

    Ya. I wonder if it’s waterproof? Now you can send/receive text messages while you’re swimming… or surf websites while you’re surfing… *lol*

  11. Ant Says:

    I want a smart watch that is standalone, thin, and light like Casio calculator watches!

  12. Nerdo Says:

    In 1992 I met a guy who had a crazy high tech watch. I can’t remember exactly what it looked like, but I think it had a mostly analog face with a small digital display at the bottom. You could “write” on it with your finger and do calculations. You could swipe a digit (kind of like Palm Graffiti but with your finger–no stylus) and +, -, X, / and it would do the calculation. I’d never seen one before or since.

  13. matt Says:

    I’m getting several “Im watch” ads on this page…

  14. David Says:

    I had the later model of this, used it in the USCG radioroom in Houston that I manned before being promoted into aviation for a few years. Man that thing was handy! I had TTY message formats, reference codes, etc, on it, available with a few touches when I had to compose and send a message by hand on the model 50 (?) teletype terminal. Wish I’d kept it… :_(

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