Dialing Into the Future, From My Wrist

Cell phones keep getting smaller and smaller—and now they're starting to disappear altogether, as the workings of a mobile phone can be contained in the guts of a wristwatch.

For the past week I've been using the W Phonewatch made by Kempler & Strauss. The device is basically a slightly oversize wristwatch with a touchscreen face. You type out numbers on a tiny keypad, and use either a Bluetooth device (your own, or one that comes with the W phone) or the built-in speaker and microphone in the watch itself.

To be sure, the W is far from perfect. It's tough pecking out numbers on that tiny keypad. Call quality isn't great. The menu system leaves a lot to be desired. In short, the W Phonewatch definitely won't replace your primary cell phone. But it costs only $200 and makes you feel like you've time-traveled into a futuristic sci-fi movie. Or time-traveled backward and you're Dick Tracy. Either way, it's very cool, a great conversation starter.

The W also offers a glimpse of what we might expect in the not-too-distant future from other companies. Korean giant LG Electronics makes a wristwatch phone called the GD910 that's a bit larger than the W phone and costs about $800. It not only makes phone calls but can also do videoconferencing—how totally is that? Today the GD910 is available in Europe, and is making its way to the U.S.

The makers admit the W Phonewatch is a bit of a novelty item. "It's an add-on, a gadget that you use occasionally. When you go jogging, or biking, and you want to have a cell phone with you—it keeps things simple," says Mario Cisneros, vice president at Kempler & Strauss, in San Diego.

Cisneros says the company has sold 2,500 units in the two months since the W Phonewatch began shipping. The watch was designed in California and manufactured in China. The phone has a built-in camera that can take still photos and record video (neither in very great detail, but still) plus calendar and contacts software, a micro SD slot and a stereo MP3 player.

You can also send text messages, but this capability might as well remain theoretical, as trying to peck out words on the tiny touchkeys is a good way to drive yourself insane.

In Europe, Kempler & Strauss sells the W Phonewatch via retailers. But here in the States you can only buy one from the company's Web site. Then you need to get a SIM card from a GSM carrier, either AT&T or T-Mobile.

Kempler & Strauss is a tiny company—just 10 employees in San Diego, and 20 in Hong Kong—so don't expect an Apple-quality user interface. The software, in fact, can be a bit maddening. Even simple things like setting the correct time can be somewhat frustrating.

But this device could come in handy. My primary cell phone is an Apple iPhone. But I don't like to carry the iPhone when I'm skiing. Instead, I could set up the iPhone to forward calls to the W Phonewatch, so at least I could be reachable on the slopes.

That, at least, is the argument I would use when trying to explain to my wife why I need this. It's much easier than telling her the truth, which is that, like most grown men, I'm secretly still a 9-year-old boy, and a wristwatch phone is just so cool that I must have one, right now.