At last month's TUCON 2013 conference, I watched Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) CEO Paul Jacobs wax poetic over his Qualcomm-designed smart watch. Qualcomm just moved the Toq from the experimental realm to become a real, consumer-focused retail product. You'll be able to buy one on Cyber Monday.
The Qualcomm Toq may be an early launch, but it's hardly the first smart watch on the market.
- Samsung's Galaxy Gear launched in September to generally poor reviews. The device must be paired with a very limited range of Samsung's own tablets or smartphones, the notifications on the smart watch aren't all that useful (although a recent software update mitigates this problem), and the battery dies too quickly.
- Sony (NYSE:SNE) also released a smart watch over the summer, also to terrible reviews. A second take, cleverly named the Sony SmartWatch 2, surfaced in October with somewhat better results. But if this is the first you hear about the Sony smart watch line, you're not alone. If a device is produced and no one buys it, does it even matter?
The Qualcomm Toq hopes to improve on these failed attempts in a couple of ways. The watch is compatible with all Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich and above, which works out to 72% of all Android devices currently in use. The device should get at least two full days of use out of a single charge, and is replenished by dropping it on a wireless charging pad. And this is the first real product to come with Qualcomm's ultra-low-power Mirasol display technology.
Mirasol screens reflect incoming light instead of relying on LCD-style backlight or even generating its own photons like an OLED screen. The technology is based on research on the optics of butterfly wings. In my view, this is what sets the Toq apart from the Samsung and Sony devices. It walks the delicate line between convenience and battery life.
The Sony watch isn't always on, in order to save battery life. The Samsung watch is always showing a live display but runs out of juice too quickly. This is a play for the middle ground.
That was a key point in Jacobs' presentation. "When anything happens on my phone, I can get a notification to my wrist," he said. An Android app lets you redirect anything to the watch, as long as it generates a notification on your tablet or phone.
"And you think that's gonna annoy you, but it's on your wrist as opposed to in your phone. It's in my phone, I have to pull the phone out. The screen's dead, I have to turn it on, unlock it, then I finally get what I want. Here, a notification comes to my wrist, I see it and I flick it. It's just gone. I just look at it quickly and it comes and goes."
If the Toq concept fails because the world isn't quite ready for a wrist-mounted information display yet, Jacobs has a backup plan. Mirasol is finally coming to phones, which could unlock similar convenience benefits on a more familiar platform.
"In the future we're gonna take this same kind of display technology and put it on the phone as well," Jacobs said. "Your phone is sitting there on the table looking dead, the screen is off 'cause that uses too much power. That will change in the future, so you will always have the ability to interface with the world around you, with notifications that are coming to you."
It's hard to say whether the Mirasol screen is enough to make the smartwatch concept go mainstream. The watch starts at $350, making it an expensive first-mover status symbol at best. But as a Universal Display investor, I'm sure keeping a close eye on the Toq and other Mirasol launches. This display technology has the potential to steal some of Universal Display's low-power thunder, which would be good news for Qualcomm but bad for Universal Display. If nothing else, the Toq is a useful litmus test for the as-yet unproven Mirasol technology.