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Smartwatches and the three-second rule

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The Palm Pilot has some lessons for wearables

Smartwatches are still in their PDA phase.

That seems like a pretty obvious conclusion when you give the category of wearables even a moment’s thought. Personal Digital Assistants like the Palm Pilot or Pocket PCs or even Apple’s Newton were usually not very useful unless you regularly synced them with your "real" computer. They ranged from very simple and cheap to very expensive — and almost all of them were pretty slow. The most powerful PDAs tried to do way too much and had fairly awful battery life.

Sound familiar?

Smartwatches are still uncommon enough that whenever I see somebody wearing one, I fight my inherent misanthropy and ask how they like it. The vast majority of people I talk to reply ruefully: "It’s fine, but..." Those "buts" end up constituting a range of complaints: the screen isn’t on when I want it to be, the battery life sucks, the apps are pointless, it cost too much. And the biggest complaint of all is, of course: it’s too slow.

These aren't computer problems, they're focus problems

When most of us talk about these problems with the Apple Watch or Android Wear, we’re doing it wrong. We say that these issues will go away when processors get faster and more efficient, when batteries get better. We’re thinking about these problems in geeky Moore’s Law terms, or perhaps in smartphone terms. But just because these things are little computers doesn’t mean that they should advance in the ways computers have historically advanced. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean we should judge current products based on future possibilities. These aren’t computer problems, they’re focus problems.

Back when he was developing the original Pilot, Jeff Hawkins famously carried around a block of wood with some fake buttons and a piece of paper taped to it. He would periodically take it out of his pocket and pretend to use it when he figured he would take out a PDA, imagining what the ideal user interaction would be. It focused his thinking, helping him direct his team to focus on the most important features that people would use most: calendar, contacts, memos, and to-do lists. (Once upon a time I called these the "Four Pillars of PIM.")

Rob Haitaini developed the user interface for the Pilot — he would later become known for developing a philosophy called "The Zen of Palm." Back in those days, our ability to make these handheld devices powerful was severely constrained. The Pilot had a 160 x 160 pixel screen and incredibly scant computer power. Hawkins wanted a device that would let you quickly scribble a note or make an appointment, so "Haitani developed a religion of counting taps. The idea was to reduce the number of steps to achieve any function to the absolute minimum, even avoiding the use of the stylus, when possible." Over at Apple, Steve Jobs had a similar dictate for the iPod: no song should be more than three clicks away.

Smartwatches could learn a lot from PDAs

Hawkins and Haitani and Jobs focused. They focused on what they imagined users would want to do and they focused on what was actually possible on such a constrained device. When I use a smartwatch, I see no such focus. The Apple Watch has 15 different ways to interact and four different kinds of main screens to learn (Home, Notifications, Glances, and Apps). Android Wear also has four zones and requires you to learn taps and swipes and sometimes even confusing physical gestures. Most of all, these don’t feel very zen.

If I were designing a watch and strapping a block of wood to my wrist to imagine what I’d want it to do, one of these things would surely be leaving my wrist unmoved and glancing down on it to see the time. Yet the Apple Watch can’t achieve this most basic thing: inconspicuously showing you the time without calling attention to itself. And launching a third party app on the Apple Watch or Android Wear takes forever — you usually spend more time looking at your watch waiting for the thing to launch than you do actually interacting with the app after it launches.

Or, more likely, you give up and just don’t bother with the more advanced functions built into your watch. In fact, that’s what most people do. When I ask those strangers about their watches and they do praise them, it’s generally because of a few specific functions: notifications, useful information on the watch face, step counting, and maybe one other thing that "just works."

If it takes more than three seconds, they blew it

Put that block of wood on your wrist. How long are you willing to stare at it as it chugs along trying to achieve the thing you actually want to do? One second? Two seconds? Surely not more than three. Let’s call it the Three-Second Rule: If something takes more than three seconds on a smartwatch, they blew it.

On most smartwatches, a lot of things take more than three seconds. When that happens, you shouldn't spend those seconds dreaming of a future smartwatch that will be faster thanks to the inevitable march of progress. You should spend them being annoyed by the product managers who created software that was designed for some mythical future processor instead of the thing actually inside your watch.

I don’t want more features in my smartwatch, I want fewer of them. I want focus. The things that people actually like about their smartwatches are precisely the things that work instantly, without waiting for a spinning wheel.

When I see Android Wear watch makers rushing (and stumbling as they rush) to put LTE radios in their devices, I wonder why they think I want something that big and bulky. For those of you who remember the original Pocket PCs, this should sound like a familiar story.

The Pebble gets it right, but its hands are tied

There is one smartwatch that has a bit of that Zen of Palm baked into it: the Pebble. Like the original Pilot, it’s fast and almost radically simplistic. And like the Pilot, it has battery life that’s measured in days, not hours. But Pebble doesn’t have the benefit of being tightly integrated into the iPhone or Android’s operating system. It also doesn’t have the benefit of coming from a massive company with huge design and manufacturing resources. This week, it came out that the company had to lay off 25 percent of its staff.

Another thing happened this week: alongside the new iPhone SE and iPad Pro, Apple announced the "Spring line" of watch bands for the Apple Watch. A "Spring line" is something you see from fashion brands more than you do from technology brands. The Apple Watch, the Nixon Mission, the Fossil Q Dreamer, and honestly most any overpowered wearable you could name may indeed be nice fashion accessories — but they’re not great smartwatches.

I've been wearing smartwatches for three years and I like them for the basic, fast things they're good at. But when somebody asks me what the best smartwatch is, I tell them that the best thing to do is not buy one right now.