Withings Activité - Building A Watch, Then Making it Smart

The new Withings Activité smart watch is beautiful, unlike many of the other entrants to the market.

The first thing that stands out to me is how clearly different the approach to creating this product must have been. If you take Samsung, LG, or even Pebble (I'll talk about Motorola in a moment) it is pretty obvious they started with a list of features and built the watch around it. Withings has undoubtedly started with a simple and timeless watch design and added intelligence to it. These two approaches are worlds apart.


The Activité gets 1 year of battery life. Pebble et al. gets 3-7 days. The Activité could be worn on a first date (this is Bradley Chambers' rule of thumb for smart watch design, and I love it), the others... not so much. On the flip side, the Activité doesn't have the wide range of features found in the competition, but a feature checklist is never a good design guide for something like this.

I have stopped wearing my Pebble because it was bulky and unattractive as a time piece. I think time and unit sales will confirm this, but an elegant complement to the smartphone that people already love is vastly more appealing than a miniature smartphone strapped to the wrist. The biggest problem here is the price ($390), but that'll come down over time; not to mention people that are able will happily pay for high quality and beautiful products that appeal to them.

The Moto 360 looks to be an attempted hybrid between looks and features. I think Motorola is on the right track, but the watch is still quite thick, it is decidedly masculine, and the battery life isn't quite where we'd like to see it (even if it doesn't last a year). 

The looming question surrounding smart watches is "what problem do they solve?" With the Withings Activité looking like an elegant and classic timepiece, that question might be demoted in importance just enough to kick start the wearables movement beyond the early adopter market. By starting with design instead of features, Withings has shown a light on what might become a mass market product category. I wouldn't bet my lunch money on it, but there is very little doubt that it is a step in the right direction.

Some Things Cannot Be Faked (Hint: Samsung)

Samsung isn't exactly know for their design prowess or their honesty. They've been caught paying people to leave fake negative reviews on competitor's products, they've been caught rigging their devices to perform better on benchmarks than they do in real life, and they've been caught stealing design cues from Apple (though rarely nicely implemented).

Side note: everyone in tech steals things from everyone else. There are a limited number of layouts, gestures, and features. There will be overlap. Don't read into that one too much, I couldn't resist posting a link to that Tumblr page.

What does this all add up to? The first thing that comes to mind is desperation. It is a shame, they're doing some decent things. Their phones are selling in record numbers and they're the only Android device maker that's actually making any money. Then they go and do things like fake leather with fake stitching on their products and paying a boat load of money for celebrity endorsements who promptly return to their iPhones when the camera turns off.

Loyalty cannot be faked; it can be purchased in the short term, but it won't last. The simplest description I can come up with is that this is the difference between being passionate about products and being passionate about your reputation at all costs. They'll keep doing these things until the market votes for a company that doesn't, for example by buying a Moto X instead of an S5.

Engadget: CES 2014 Picks

Some interesting picks in here, definitely seems to capture the best products there. With that being said, I'm still not seeing anything that is standing out.

  • Oculus Rift keeps making these kinds of lists, but it seems to be in a perpetual state of development.
  • Sony Z1 Compact packs a top end punch into an iPhone-size device, a rarity for Android devices.
  • There are a LOT of fitness trackers, I don't see that changing any time soon.
  • The Mother sensor system seems interesting. Not a grand slam, but a fresh take on smart home technology.

Stratechery: The Best Analogy For Chromebooks Are iPads

An excellent follow up piece (to his original post) on where Chromebooks fit into the tech world. Also read his link to Vance McAlister's response, both are very insightful.

From Vance:

The true value in ChromeOS is what it DOESN’T have. Critics say “a Macbook or Windows laptop will give you the same Chrome browser, plus a lot more as well!”, but that misses the point entirely. Those laptops don’t come with the killer feature of ChromeOS: the LACK of a traditional OS.

The lack of a traditional OS means you do not have to deal with the myriad frustrations of Windows, Mac or even Linux. You get instant on, constant updates, no registry corruption, no accumulated accretions and eventual slowdowns, no viruses and conflicts. In theory, as long as the hardware holds up, a ChromeOS device will be as slick and responsive in five years as it is out of the box.

How Much Does Design Matter for Wearable Tech?

John Gruber posted an interesting tweet yesterday regarding how important the aesthetic design of a product is:

Of course, some folks aren't interested in the design of a product, but in general it holds true. Some of the appeal of the iPhone is how stunning it is to look at. Part of the appeal of the Moto X is how clean and simple the design is while still being highly customizable.

So why is it that a large number of wearable devices just aren't elegantly designed? I see a few obvious reasons.

  1. Physical limitations - The physical limitations of putting certain sensors, certain screens, and certain features into a device with a battery that can power it is challenging. Very challenging. In many instances, there is no choice but to make the device thicker than is desirable to accommodate the necessary battery, our battery technology simply isn't that good yet.
  2. Unique design - The easiest way for the general public to judge design is if it looks like a product that we know has been beautifully designed. The problem here is that companies can't just all copy one another's designs or things would be very boring. Companies branch out, they try to put their signature mark on the product, and often it just isn't quite right.
  3. Branding - Certain companies cannot resist putting their branding all over a device rather than letting the device speak for itself. The most glaring example is the new Pebble Steel with the large "Pebble" printed right on the face of the watch.

I'm not sure where this leaves us. I don't see any products out today (including the rush of announcements at CES thus far) that I believe will go mainstream, though some will likely sell fairly well. I do know that I've largely stopped wearing my Pebble, I remove my Jawbone Up for any half way formal event, and I wouldn't wear Google Glasses outside my house if I did own them.

I look forward to the wearable revolution, but I am seeing the M5 in the iPhone 5s being more and more valuable as the tracking mechanism of choice since it is beautifully designed and already guaranteed to be with me at all times.