Ever since the image of Dick Tracy talking into his wrist first graced the comic pages the watch-phone has been a longed-for fantasy. At first, it was just so much sci fi. Then it became something that, in the early days of brick-like cell phones, was just beyond the horizon; it was coming, and it would be huge. And then it was actually achievable, but too clunky to be comfortable—remember Microsoft’s Spot?
But for several years, we've had the technology to build a reasonably sized watch phone. People have built them. And then introduced them at CES.
This year’s version, demonstrated in Las Vegas at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, was a $199 GSM watch phone from Kempler & Strauss. It seems to work just fine, at least, as best I could tell in the noisy environment of a product launch event. And the very nice gentlemen who developed it and are trying to market it were thrilled by the response of videographers and photographers crowding around their display.
But, I hate to tell them, while the fantasy image of the watch phone as being the ultimate consumer device persists, no one wants one.
The reason is not what you think. It’s not that it’s not stylish enough, or the technology isn’t quite there yet, or that users might feel odd speaking into their wrists. It’s because everyone who wants one already owns a watch-phone—it’s their standard cell phone.
Ask a teenager—my son, for example—what time it is, and he will pull out his cell phone. He carries it with him everywhere; it’s his calendar, his camera, and his watch. He’s used to it being in his back pocket—the idea of carrying a clock on his wrist is foreign to him. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered to buy him a watch—I mean, doesn’t he need a watch? No, actually, he doesn’t.)
So I’m sorry Kempler; I’m sorry Dick Tracy—things have changed, and it’s time to let go of the fantasy and move on. And we journalists at CES are going to have to find a first-day story that’s not about the latest watch-phone.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.