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The Advent of the Third Screen, or May I Wear My Watch Again?

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I wear a watch. That fact alone places me in an older demographic since many teens and twenty-somethings have long relied on cell phones as their sole time-keeping device. As a consequence, many watchmakers have suffered in recent years. I said I wear a watch, but it’s actually been out-of-order for several weeks forcing me to reach into my pocket to tell time.  The experience has been frustrating and has made me appreciate anew the value of having a watch that I can glance at easily. To each his own, I suppose.

There have been attempts to make a smarter watch. Casio Databank watches were the rage in the 80s. They could store phone numbers and reminders, but they couldn’t be connected to an external computer. Twenty years ago, the Timex Datalink allowed the transfer of phone numbers, appointments, anniversaries, to-do lists, reminders, and alarms from a PC to the watch encoded in the CRT’s emitted light. Ten years later, Microsoft introduced the SPOT Watch which could receive email, weather forecast, stocks info, and news via FM radio bands. The SPOT could be updated dynamically if the user was in range of a compatible FM signal. In the end, these devices didn’t last and were superseded by Palm PDAs, and, later, smart phones.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the possible resurgence of watches. There are persistent rumors about an Apple iWatch that could potentially make watches cooler again. Other possible makers of smart watches include Samsung, LG, and Microsoft. These new smart watches would interact with a cell phone via Bluetooth, and, possibly, via Wi-Fi and cellular networks. The latter is less likely because of the power requirements of a cellular connection. There are a number of smart watches already on the market including the Pebble which uses Bluetooth to connect to an iPhone or Android phone and displays the time, email headers, reminders and text message.

Consider the nascent field of the second or companion screen. The idea is that your main screen (usually the TV or the computer monitor) can be augmented by having an app running on a smart phone or a tablet. What if in the near future, most computing was performed on mobile devices, which would then be augmented by smaller devices such as smart watches. In essence, a smart watch would be a third screen; a companion to a second screen mobile device. Such a pairing would redefine the client-server concept.

This is more than just a story about watches. A whole range of products could act as a third screen including:

  1. Head-mounted display systems such as Google Glass.
  2. A car HUD (Head-up display)
  3. A smart refrigerator with a display panel, etc…


You could imagine scenarios where the computing devices around you would be aware of your presence via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, etc…, and automatically become third screens to your cell phone. You might be sitting in front of a TV which would display information about an incoming call. A similar situation could occur if you sat down in front of a PC, even one that didn’t belong to you. In a role-reversal, these main screens would become third screens to your second-screen mobile devices. With the definition of a common interface, any device you encounter could become your display of choice at that moment.

A bit far out? Perhaps. Nonetheless, third screens are coming, potentially opening up a whole new field for software developers. Now, may I wear my watch again?

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