Flashback: seeing how watch phones turned into smart watches

Smartwatches had more success in space than they did on Earth. That used to be the case, anyway, as wearables market is on the rise these days. We’ll now trace their history all the way back to the early gadgets, which weren’t all that “smart”. You may remember two “3G watch phones” from 2009 – the Samsung S9110 and LG GD910. Having a phone on your wrist was cool, but these couldn’t really run apps (not even J2ME). Texting on them was tricky, web browsing was out of the question. And with no Wi-Fi and tiny battery, tethering wasn’t really an option either. So what was the point? Sometimes companies try things out before the tech is ready. And it had been 10 years since the SPH-WP10 – Samsung’s first watch phone – so having another go at it probably made sense.

The WP10 may have taken the name “watch phone” a little too seriously – it very much looks like a phone from the era, including the external antenna, just with a wrist strap. It weighed 50g and measured 20 mm thick, but it was all worth it since you could make calls on a 2G network for up to 90 minutes. This was before Bluetooth, though, so unless you wanted to hold it up to your ear (and look weird doing it), you had to use a wired headset. The Samsung S9110 and LG GD910 got that much right at least, they were ideally used with a Bluetooth headset. Then they were just like any other phone, except strapped securely to your wrist – you can’t forget it or lose it and you don’t have to keep it in your pocket when going out for a run.

The LG model even had a camera and made use of its 3G connection to send and receive MMS – just imagine going out in 2009, snapping a photo and instantly sharing it with your friends, all without your phone. Actually, imagine doing that today. It’s not impossible, but not easy either, despite another 10 years of technological progress. The Sony Ericsson LiveView from 2010 was an early example of a smart band. Okay, it was watch-shaped, but unlike true smartwatches, it was completely useless without a phone. It was just a wireless display that showed content that the phone pushed to it. Seriously, this couldn’t even keep the time, instead, it needed to synchronize with your phone at every boot-up.

Two years later Sony would release the so-called “Sony SmartWatch” that still had no smarts built in, it was just a better LiveView. It wouldn’t be until the Sony SmartWatch 3 (sadly, the last of its kind) that the company would make the jump to Android Wear. The 3 was one of the first smartwatches to have a GPS receiver built-in, by the way.

The Motorola Motoactv was similar to the LiveView. It came out in 2011 and had much more advanced exercise-tracking features. ANT+ enabled it to connect to a speed/cadence sensor on a bike or to external pulse sensors (Bluetooth could be used as well). Exercise tracking is still a major use case for smartwatches. It didn’t have “apps”, though it did support plug-ins for Facebook and Twitter, for example.

In 2013 Samsung tried its hand at making a smartwatch again. The Galaxy Gear was an actual smartwatch as there was no telephony or mobile data. Note that despite the “Galaxy” branding, this ran Tizen on an 800 MHz processor with 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB storage (smartwatch memory capacities have changed surprisingly little since then).

The Galaxy Gear had a 1.9MP camera that could shoot 10-second video clips in 720p. You had to share those from your phone, however. Still, you could read SMS, view MMS and make calls using the watch (as long as your phone was within Bluetooth range).

And more importantly, there were apps – 70 of them at launch, including Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper.

By necessity, smartwatches have smaller screens, so while advancements like speech-to-text make communication fairly easy, they are still not great at scrolling through Facebook or watching Netflix. Maybe foldable displays will change that, enabling some sort of smart-watch-phone-bracelet type devices. We’ve already seen attempts at it, but the tech isn’t ready. Maybe 10 years after the Gear S things will be different.

For a closer look at early smartwatches check out our earlier post on the matter. There have been some kooky ideas like putting an iPod Nano on a wrist strap.

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About the Author: Karim Khan

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