CES 2018: Modularity is an uphill battle
The Blocks smartwatch was announced back in 2015, which in the relatively short timeline of modern wearables, feels prehistoric. So much has changed since then – new companies have entered, others have left – and all the while Blocks has kept us waiting. At CES 2018, the company announced it was going to start shipping watches to backers ahead of a wider launch later in the year. Blocks has already missed two planned launch windows, but it really isready to go now.
Let’s just quickly cover off what Blocks actually is. This is a $259 modular smartwatch; you buy the “core” unit and then add individual modules to the strap, each performing a unique function. Out the gate there will be six, costing $35 each, but the company has a long list of ideas for more.
Blocks has been in development since November 2013 and the watch has evolved a lot in that time. The new model we saw at CES was a little different to what we’d previously seen, and this is the one that is about to ship to backers and (some time in Q1) made widely available. Here’s what we think so far.
Blocks smartwatch: Stuck together pieces
“When we worked with the previous manufacturer, the quality wasn’t good enough,” Blocks’ Omer El Fakir tells me. So Blocks switched to a new manufacturer and a new, faster MediaTek processor. It’s also crammed in a slightly bigger battery, though that’s pushed up the size of the core unit.
The 400 x 400 AMOLED display face is still 45mm but lug-to-lug the case is a little longer than when we last saw it. And it only comes in one size. In a time where smartwatch makers are designing for people who want smaller wearables (most notably women), Blocks is behind. At least you have an option of two colors: black or silver.
As for the modules, these attach via the strap, and Blocks is making life easier by shipping the watch with an adapter that will connect to any 22mm strap. Kudos to them for that idea.
The six modular Blocks is making available from day one include a heart rate sensor, a GPS/GLONASS module, a smart button, an LED, a battery extender, and an “Adventure” module that tracks humidity, temperature and altitude. But it won’t stop there. The company plans to push out a bunch more including an air quality filter, an NFC module, a respiration sensor and even a breathalyzer. You can’t fault Blocks for throwing out some unique ideas.
And I know what you’re wondering: yes you can attach more than one at once. Blocks told me you can have up to four modules attached at a time though I wasn’t able to try that to see how comfortable it may or may not be. The battery module, which grants you 25% extra power, is a little larger than the others. Without it, Blocks says you can expect to run for around two days.
Blocks smartwatch: Android Wear? Not exactly
In a world dominated by Android Wear and Apple’s watchOS, barely any smartwatch makers are daring to build their own ecosystem. Even Misfit, which made pretty good headway with its proprietary OS on the Misfit Vapor, decided that rather than fight Goliath, it was better to join him. Blocks’ OS is Android-based, but not Android Wear, which is what allows it to integrate the modules. It was designed by Cronologics, a company that was building smartwatch software on regular Android before, funnily enough, it was bought by Google. The OS on the Blocks watch is the same one running on the Alexa CoWatch and works with Android and iPhones.
That means there are hints of Android Wear in here, but menus are designed differently and, perhaps problematically, users won’t have access to the Android Wear app store. El Fakir said that you will be able to sideload apps, and already the company has done so with Philips Hue – with Philips’ blessing. There’s now an Alexa app in there too, though I didn’t get to try that one out in my demo.
While it’s not yet ready, Blocks is building its own app store that will be made available in the smartphone app. The watch is also being updated to Android 8 Oreo to give it more power efficiency.
So there will be some apps out the door, and Blocks is no doubt hoping to attract a healthy developer community that will find interesting uses for the modules it’s offering. That, to me, is where Blocks’s potential lies. These modules could be means to much more interesting ends.
The Blocks smartwatch demonstrates creative thinking but I fear it’s a little too late. Modular tech is hard. Even in the smartphone space, which has had a lengthy headstart over wearables, the modular concept just hasn’t stuck. There is, however, still a hole left behind by Pebble, which the Fitbit Ionic hasn’t managed to fill. The Ionic lacks geek appeal; Blocks has it in spades. But I wonder if there’s also a big enough market to make Blocks a success.