The discussion around wearables, which is primarily centered around the smartwatch, reminds me of the iPad introduction in 2010. In the presentation, there was a slide showing an iPhone and a MacBook, with a question mark between them. For this third category to exist, Steve Jobs said, it would have to do certain things way better than either a laptop or a phone.

The question then for smart watches is "Why do I need a computer on my wrist, when I have one in my pocket?" Similar questions were asked of the iPad. "I already own a portable and vastly more capable machine in a laptop. Why the iPad?" As Ben Thompson writes, we got that backwards.

If you start with the Mac (or PC – they’re interchangeable in this analysis), then the benefit of the iPad is all about its simplicity: touch and the limited nature of iOS make some computing activities easier and more approachable, especially for people like my mom. A Mac (or PC), meanwhile, can do everything an iPad can do and more (although it must bear the cost of complexity).

The problem with this thinking is the focus on “computing.” The things we humans wish to do are so much more varied: sing, play, dance, even, I suppose, make spreadsheets. It is a spectrum, of which traditional “compute” activities are only a small part.

The iPad succeeded because it was vastly better for many tasks. It was the general purpose computer. The raison d'être for smart watches remains elusive, at least in their current incarnation. Notifications and the appeal of a science fiction existence may be unique selling points, but they are not enough. Besides, you will still reach for your phone to find out more, reply or share.

Current iterations of the smartwatch seem focused on perceived functional gaps. I'm not sure one even exists. Wearables present opportunities for vastly different functionality, but smartwatches today are not realizing that potential.

Android Wear looks like the best software implementation of a smartwatch OS yet, but that screen on my wrist still fails to provide significant lasting benefits. Perhaps the smart watch is not the answer to wearables. There has to be something more than notifications.

Ramkumar Shankar