In Praise of “Dumb” Devices

I recently got a running watch to help track my pace when I’m running. Whenever I look at it’s single-colour, pixelated display, I’m reminded of why I love “dumb” devices.

Every appliance and accessory is under pressure to become “smart”. Your camera can connect to Facebook, your thermostat is connected to your phone, which is connected to absolutely everything. If a particular device can connect to another device, as the thought goes, it should. If a feature could possibly be added, then add it!

Every devices wants to become a Swiss army knife, packed on every side with scissors and knives, screwdrivers and nail files.

Our smartphones (which we still curiously call “phones”), are Swiss army knives. Connected to everything, with an app for everything, with us at all times. Computers are also a trustworthy jack-of-all-trades, but their immobility makes them better-suited for tasks that you’re willing to sit down to perform.

Swiss army knives have a place (if you could pick one tool to bring on a hike in the woods, which would it be?), but they’re not always the best tool for a particular job. Sometimes you need a specific tool for a specific purpose. A screwdriver is better at turning screws, a filleting knife better-suited to cutting fish than the one in your multi-tool.

My running watch is a filleting knife. It’s job is to do one thing really well. It doesn’t have a camera, and you can’t send text messages, but that’s exactly what I want when I’m running. Disconnected from the distractions of connection, I’m free to do what I want to do when I lace up my shoes and strap on this watch: run.

You can see the pressure that fitness watches are under, to integrate all the features that you might want when you’re running. What if there’s a great sunrise and I want to snap a photo? What if there’s an emergency and my wife needs to get ahold of me while I’m on the trail? Slowly every tool that set out to solve one problem well comes under pressure to solve many problems, often at the expense of their original goal.

You can keep your “smart” watch, with all its bells and whistles. I’ll stick with my “dumb” device, thanks.