Tech on the Side: Skeumorphism and round smartwatches
Apr 24, 2015

Tech on the Side: Skeumorphism and round smartwatches


It appears as if Samsung's next smartwatch is going to follow the Moto 360 in having a round face. This is an examples of short term thinking and skeumorphism gone horribly wrong.

The concept of skeumorphism in technology refers to using designs that were needed in older technology, but are no longer relevant today. The first several generations of iOS were full of skeumorphism, from faux leather and yellow legal pad style notes to 3D drop shadows and mechanical dials. None of these design elements made anything more functional, but there was a sense in which they were familiar to actual note pads and actual 3D buttons. Arguably it made it easier for people to effortlessly embrace the touch screen centric world we now live in.

In Windows 8, in iOS 7, and in Material Design on Android (and most of the rest of Google's portfolio), skeumorphism has largely been dropped. Everyone is completely familiar with touch screens now, and we hardly need these old visual cues. So modern designs don't pretend to be anything beyond the two dimensions they live in and have clean and often brightly coloured designs far from their pre-mobile predecessors.

Why a round watch?
For mechanical watches, the fact that they are round follows from the geometry of a hand going around in a circle. A rectangular watch is just going to have wasted space in the corners and would be pointless for mechanical watches.

For smartwatches, round faces make little functional sense. Anything that displays text (such as messages, emails, etc) is going to be best displayed on a rectangular display. The only real application that makes sense for a round display is for showing legacy watch faces. But even then, this is only going to be a small portion of use (otherwise why by a smartwatch?), and besides, wasted space on one app is a far smaller problem then not enough space on everything else.

Round smartwatches are thus an almost quintessential examples of skeumorphism. It is using a design that made a lot of sense in the legacy technology being replaced (mechanical watches) in the modern technology (smartwatches) where it is functionally unnecessary.

At least in the iOS examples of skeumorphism there wasn't much of a loss. We didn't need fake binder coils on our notebook, but they didn't hurt much either. There was, at worst, a fairly small percentage of wasted space compared to modern designs. With round smartwatches, the functionality of the smartwatches is worse than rectangular designs, in particular for the displaying of text.

Why then does the Moto 360, the presumed new Samsung, and others use round displays if they are, as I suggest, obviously inferior? My arguments were about functionality. Theirs are likely more about familiarity.

 Smartwatches are a largely untested product category and it isn't clear that people will either find them useful enough relative to smartphones to bother, and the degree to which people will find it fashionable or unfashionable to have them. Watches are always on display as part of our wardrobe, so this matters to an even greater degree than smartphones. The hope, presumably, is that by having a device that looks like a watch - something many people wear currently - that it will make people more familiar with the product and more likely to buy it.

Maybe so, but I somewhat doubt it. If early estimates are correct, it would appear Apple has sold more smartwatches in their opening weekend then the entirety of Android (or Samsung's own OS) based watches have in a year. Apple, of course, is a unique entity, and it isn't as if most of those rectangular Android smartwatches have sold much either. However, for long term success, I think trying to get a few more people from the door early with familiar but functionally inferior designs isn't going to be a winning strategy.


This blog is primarily about political and social commentary. But it is also my personal space to blog about, well, whatever else it is that I'm interested in. These posts get labels "______ on the side", such as my Tech on the Side series. 

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