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Will Open Source Lead Sony to the Promised Land of Smartwatch and Wearable Tech Visibility?
Wearable Tech World Feature Article
June 19, 2013
Will Open Source Lead Sony to the Promised Land of Smartwatch and Wearable Tech Visibility?
By Tony Rizzo
TMCnet Senior Editor

Here’s an interesting question: Are you aware that Sony was among the first – if not in fact the first – company to get a legitimate smartwatch, complete with apps available to download for it on Google (News - Alert) (News - Alert) Play, out the door and actually shipping? We ourselves have always known it, but on some “other level” we’ve never actually acknowledged it. In fact, you can head over to Amazon and buy one of these Android (News - Alert) (News - Alert)-powered wearable tech devices right this minute for $105 and have it shipped to you overnight. The problem has been, however, that even though we’ve known of it, we’ve never wanted to get one.

Since the Sony SmartWatch (that is its official name) first emerged however, it has had any and all thunder it might once have had completely stolen by the Pebble Watch. We’ve never touched one and the device comes with a variety of mixed reviews, but we ourselves don’t really know how it compares to the Pebble – which we have touched and one of which is on order in cherry red that we’re eagerly awaiting to arrive sometime in late summer. We don’t mind waiting for it, and we aren’t interested in getting one from Sony that we can have in hand long before this week is out.

The question for us – and one we’d pose to a great many other folks out there who are also waiting for their Pebble watches to arrive – is why we don’t want one. Several things come to mind.

First, Sony has simply not done much of a job in capturing anyone’s imagination with it. There has been no marketing that we can recall (and if there had been, if we don’t recall it it’s no different than never having had it in place) but we’ve provided an image immediately below in case it helps to jar your memory into remembering. Second, it may just be a reputation thing – Sony is hardly the first name that springs to mind these days for anything mobile. Yes, it has some smartphones but its market share is insignificant. Sony claims it has sold at least half a million of the devices but that hasn't resulted in any notable enthusiasm - at least not amongst those in a position to create any for the consumer market.

Image via Sony

Yes, it has TVs out there, but whereas not all that long ago they were the gold standard, today they rank perhaps third or fourth in line when considering a new TV. Yes, the PlayStation still has an audience. Yes, it has laptops and tablets. But the company has not executed well overall and though that may now be changing for the better, none of it has helped Sony bridge the consumer divide between driving desire and dealing with a complete lack of interest.

The Sony SmartWatch offers a 128×128 pixel, 65,536 color display, multilevel touch, which allows it to sense various gestures, and delivers Bluetooth phone-paired notifications for calls, messages and other forms of communication, calendar information, music details and various major social media networks. The smartwatch itself is available in black or white, and is easily attachable to a rubber strap that is available in six different colors.

We ourselves invited the company to participate on the smart watch panel session at our upcoming Wearable Tech Conference and to take part in the conference’s Demo Forum. But to our surprise, Sony decided to opt out after a number of back and forth conversations. We’ll leave it at that, but it is a missed opportunity for real visibility, enthusiasm generation and to go head to head there with the thunder stealers.

Open Source (News - Alert) (News - Alert) to the Thunder Stealing Rescue?

As a device powered by Android, there has always been a possibility and likelihood that developers would build apps for the Sony SmartWatch. To assist in doing so, Sony provides its Add-on SDK - this provides what Sony refers to as its Smart Extension APIs. These APIs allow apps to run on Android smartphones and to interact with both the Sony SmartWatch and the "Sony Smart Wireless headset pro." We won't concern ourselves with the headset in this story, though the image below of the general development framework shows the headset on the right side.

Sony Xperia smartphones comer pre-installed with Sony's Smart Connect app, which allows the phone to interact with the Smart Headset, the Sony SmartWatch and third-party smart extensions created with the Add-on SDK. How these interactions work is shown below.

Image via Sony

But as of this week, Sony has taken a further step by announcing that it will now allow "advanced developers" to build more advanced capabilities for the Sony SmartWatch. To achieve this goal, Sony has created the Sony Open SmartWatch Project and has made the entire effort an open-source effort. It is an interesting move - anything open source is always a good way to generate interest from all sorts of developer types - some of whom look at open-source-based projects with religious fervor.

The key words here though are "advanced developer." To be able to take advantage of the new capability Sony is offering literally means giving the developer the ability (through shared technical information and directions) to completely re-flash the SmartWatch firmware. What this means is that an advanced developer can literally change the Sony SmartWatch into being something else entirely if an advanced developer so chooses.

Yes, it will still have the basic hardware of the Sony SmartWatch, but a user can change how the hardware behaves, acts and what it can do. In other words, Sony is offering to allow the advanced developer to use the hardware platform of the Sony SmartWatch in any way, shape, form or direction a developer might want to go. Along with this possible freedom however lurk several challenges and potential pitfalls. Per Sony:

  • Please note that by flashing alternative firmware to the Sony SmartWatch it will no longer work as intended. You will no longer be able to use SmartConnect or any compatible SmartWatch app currently available on Google Play.
  • Please note that you may void the warranty of your device and/or any warranty from your operator if you flash alternative firmware to SmartWatch.
  • Due to the modified device software, Sony’s repair network will likely have to replace key components before it can properly test, repair and verify your device using its repair tools and software. Consequently, if Sony performs a warranty repair, Sony will likely charge you a significant service fee for the additional costs caused by your modification of the software.
  • Sony can no longer guarantee the full functionality of your device, and will not be responsible for any alternative firmware being put on the device. Certain functions on your device might cease to work, and performance might not be ideal. You might also damage your device permanently. In the worst case, flashing alternative firmware may cause physical injuries or material damage, for example, due to the device overheating.

We confess that we are not quite sure how either Sony or advanced developers are likely to profit from all of the "freedom" re-flashing the Sony SmartWatch firmware may provide. It strikes us as having no commercial benefit for Sony itself relative to increasing brand awareness, brand loyalty, brand values and especially to building Sony SmartWatch brand enthusiasm. By the same token, by making the brand itself less important to the hardware platform, we are having a really hard time understanding what's in it for the developer, who will also need to develop a replacement Smart Connect app. How will the developer actually generate any revenue from a device that will suffer from less brand recognition and likely suffer as well from all of the bulleted items above?

Sure, there are always developers that want to hot rod and trick out any sort of hardware, but there is no money in it. There is the unique pleasure it affords the advanced developer directly, but beyond that and/or a very niche audience we're not sure we see what the effort accomplishes for Sony itself that will help it better sell the Sony SmartWatch to a larger consumer audience.

In the meantime, we're hoping to get a real, non-reflashed and new  Sony SmartWatch 2 in hand for a hands-on review. The company just announced the new version, and we've provided our initial thoughts on it. Stay tuned on hands-on review front.

If you happen to be an advanced developer make sure to scope out the Sony Open SmartWatch Project website.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

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