Before Apple Watch: the timely history of the smartwatch
13th Sep 2014 | 12:01
The long and winding road to the Apple Watch
History of the smartwatch: past times
Smartwatches have been the next big thing since 1982. But 2015 is going to be different: when the Apple Watch drops early next year it's going to start a whole new wave of wearable tech.
And if that doesn't? Well, we've got smartwatches to look forward to from pretty much everyone else.
So what's different this time, and why haven't smartwatches really taken off before now? Let's look at some of the major milestones - and mistakes.
1982: Pulsar NL C01
Pulsar is a Seiko brand, and while the NL C01 was rather primitive by today's standards - it stored just 24 digits of information - it was quickly followed by more models such as 1984's UC-2000 and 1985's UC-3000. Both of these watches were ambitious: you could buy them with a dock that boasted a thermal printer and a memory cartridge slot.
Ambitious is a relative term, of course: mid-eighties smart watches were still rather gimmicky. What they didn't have was connectivity. Bluetooth was a decade away and cellular hardware was far too big and far too expensive: the enormous Motorola DynaTAC 8000X would set you back a whopping $3,995.
1984: Seiko RC-1000
Seiko's RC-1000 synchronised via a cable, and it was compatible with the various PCs of the time including Apple and Commodore C64 hardware.
Another model, the RC-4000 (dubbed the PC Datagraph) was released in 1985 and that shrugged off the plastic look of the RC-1000, favouring a stainless steal chassis.
It was known for its unusual three-line dot-matrix type and the fact that it housed 2KB of RAM.
1990: Seiko Receptor
The next big shift in smart watches happened at the turn of the decade, and it went beep - literally in the case of Swatch, whose The Beep watch followed in the footsteps of Seiko's 1990 Receptor, a watch that doubled as a pager.
For the first time, smart watches were wirelessly connected to the wider world. All they needed now was all the other stuff. That stuff started to appear in late 90s, largely thanks to - you guessed it - Seiko.
1998: Seiko Ruputer
The 1998 Ruputer (later launched as the OnHand PC in the US) was more of a computer than a watch, boasting a 16-bit processor and 128KB of RAM. The screen wasn't up to much - it was a 102x64 mono LCD - and it wasn't a touchscreen, but you could write apps for the Ruputer in C.
Samsung was thinking about smart watches too: its SPH-WP10 was the first watch phone, although while the device has spawned several imitators it was never an enormous success.
IBM and Citizen tried a Linux smart watch, the WatchPad, but it was short lived. Fossil lasted longer, having found a way to cram the Palm OS into a much smaller screen (Palm OS was designed for PDAs, but Fossil's watches used smaller cellphone screens): it launched multiple models from 2002 to 2005.
History of the smartwatch: time trialled
2004: Microsoft SPOT
You can usually count on Microsoft to enter a potentially massive market far too early, so you won't be surprised to discover that it was making smart watches nearly a decade ago. Microsoft's platform was called Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT for short, and it used FM broadcasts to update subscribers' data in major US cities.
A subscription was $59 per year. SPOT watches were released from 2004 until 2008, and Microsoft shut down the SPOT-updating MSN Direct service in 2012.
2009: Samsung S9110 Watch Phone
Microsoft had the right idea and the wrong answer. The future of the smart watch was wireless, but the wireless wasn't FM: it was Bluetooth. The relentless march of smartphone tech meant that all the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together: better batteries, touch screens and low-power, short-range connections to internet-connected devices such as smartphones.
By the beginning of this decade, firm after firm had seen the potential. Samsung had its S9110 Watch Phone (2009). Sony Ericsson launched its LiveView (2010) to pull data from Android phones, and Allerta's InPulse (also 2010) did the same for BlackBerries.
WIMM Labs' WIMM One (2011) shoved a modified version of Android into a watch-sized device, Motorola's Motoactv (also 2011) combined fitness information and music playback and Apple found that many of its square iPod Nanos (2011 again) ended up on people's wrists.
2012: Pebbles and fitness kit
By the end of 2012 we were up to our wrists in wearables: Nike+ Fuelbands and Jawbone Ups, the epaper-screened Pebble and the cute Cuckoo, the Sony Smartwatch and all kinds of GPS trackers and exercise monitors.
But while many of them are very good indeed, their relatively small sales suggest that nobody has quite nailed the smart watch yet. Could Samsung be about to change that?
2013: Samsung Galaxy Gear
Samsung has been extremely busy in the smartwatch market, releasing no less than six devices since the original Samsung Galaxy Gear back in September 2013. This is definitely not a once-size-fits-all approach. For instance, there is the original Gear (since upgraded to Tizen OS from Android), the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo which offer up wearable tech for those who want to keep abreast of email and messages on their phone.
Then there is the Gear Fit, a fitness band of sorts that's tethered to a Samsung device, and the Samsung Gear S which is Tizen based and a smartwatch that runs is separate to a phone, as it comes complete with its own SIM card slot. Oh, and Samsung also dipped its toes into Android Wear with the Samsuing Gear Live. Which brings us on to...
2014: Android Wear
Google went big with smartwatches this year, announcing Android Wear its watch-centric OS that makes use of things such as Google Now and allows developers to create smartwatches with either a round, square or rectangle face.
Google has rounded up a whole host of partners for Android Wear - including Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and Asus - and at IFA 2014 we saw the fruits of this partnership, with the introduction of the Moto 360, LG G Watch R and the Asus ZenWatch.
Android Wear has already produced some great-looking smartwatches but they have all been under the spectre of an impending Apple wearable which was finally announced in September...
2015: Apple Watch
It's not coming out until 2015 but Apple showed off the Apple Watch in September, presumably with the hope that anyone looking to buy a smartwatch this Christmas would have second thoughts.
Although thoughts on the design have been mixed - everything from 'ooh, it's a little chunky' to 'take my money, Apple. Take it all now' - the mere presence of an Apple Watch almost future proofs this still nascent product category.
Gareth Beavis, TechRadar's resident mobile devices wizard, has played with the Apple Watch and reckons: "The Apple Watch is neither a fitness band, watch or fashion accessory though, despite taking a bit from each of those camps. It's hard to define what it really is, which means that users may struggle to justify the purchase."
And that pretty much sums up the whole smartwatch market at the moment. It's an area that doesn't yet have a purpose but we expect this to change very soon...
- Hands on Apple Watch review. Here's what we think of Apple's wearable.