Will a Freely Distributed OS for Smartwatches Succeed?

It seems that crowdfunded smartwatches have become popular again, with Vachen and AGENT Smartwatch starting their Kickstarter campaigns and followed by Boddie and Emopulse closely behind. With all the choices in smartwatches today, we the consumer, are spoiled for choice. You have a large variety of features, operating systems and watch designs. So how do we pick the one we really want? Perhaps one of them has features you think are really important to you but you hate the design or vice versa. Is there a way to have our cake and eat it?

Perhaps we can learn a bit from what watchmakers have been doing for a long time. Companies like Tag Heuer, Seiko, Swatch and many others produce a good variety of wristwatch models year after year. On the surface, they have absolutely nothing in common, some have a stainless steel casing, other are covered in Swarovski crystals, some show the date, others barely have any numbers on them. Looking past the surface reveals similar or even identical clock movements that power these watches. As these movements are make up a complex and intricate network of springs, counterweights and gears, one can understand that watchmakers would want to use a design for as long as possible. It would simply take too long to design a new movement for each new design of a watch.

Hence, the use of modules in watch design is important to getting models off the designing table to the manufacturing floor as quickly as possible. The fewer movements needed to cater to a large range of watches the better it is for the watchmakers.

In a way, this is what Google has done with Android as well as. Google has created a usable and flexible operating system that smart phone makers can take, tweak and ship with their hardware. By creating a base OS that can be dispatched to handsets that hold vastly different hardware, Google has been able to ensure that Android-powered handsets now outnumber the wildly popular Apple iPhone. Now, you can get an Android smart phone in a variety of models with different technical specifications and prices that you can pick and choose which hardware suits you best, knowing that the software experience will be mainly similar.

For smartwatches, this has not been the case. For every smartwatch out there, there is a proprietary operating system that powers it. This means that the user experience is vastly different for each smartwatch model. It also means that the makers of the smartwatches have to split their efforts and resources into two parts, watch design and OS development. While app development can sometimes be “outsourced” to third party developers, the software development kit (SDK) has to be created and this takes time and resources as well.

The various smartwatch makers have taken different approaches to handle this. For starters, Pebble has put a lot of effort into the creation of its SDK and has garnered a decent developer community so far and have also partnered popular big-name app developers like the RunKeeper. However, Pebble doesn’t look all that classy, it might work as a sports watch or can be worn with casual wear, but it doesn’t really have the look to match office wear. What if more was done on the design side of things? Would the software side have taken a productivity hit? What if they used a pre-made smartwatch OS?

The Agent smartwatch on the other hand is trying to juggle both equally well at the same time. Secret Labs, the creator of the Agent knows electronics and software very well, but are no experts in watch design. So they partnered with House of Horology, which creates really nice timepieces. Together, they hope to be able to tackle the electronics and the design aspects of the smartwatch together. This is definitely commendable and a good strategy, but would this mean delays in the production cycle as it does take time to tweak the operating system and functionality. Secret Labs did however use the Microsoft.NET Micro Framework as a base for its operating system. Is this the start to using a distributed OS for smartwatches?

What we need is one of the established software companies to spearhead this. A small time player might not cut it because not many will utilize an OS that might not be around if the company goes under. The OS should be developed by Google, Apple or Microsoft, so as to give weight to the software. It will also provide trust to developers that the OS will be supported for years to come. These companies are able to utilize their expertise in software development to create an OS that will be able to perform under different hardware conditions, maximize battery life while providing usability and functionality, all at the same time looking great on the watch face.

With this OS, established players in the watch industry could be drawn into the smartwatch sector and with their experience in design, would be able to create an army of smartwatches that will be able to please everyone looking for a smartwatch.

Will this distributable OS become a reality and open the doors to a large variety of smartwatches in the market? Or will smartwatches be dominated by a single model from Apple or maybe even Pebble? Either way, this is a really exciting time for the smartwatch industry.

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