We have, of course, all been here before. The Casio calculator watch swept the classrooms of the world in the Eighties; in between Sony has launched a host of smart watches to almost total consumer indifference, and even its latest models, critically acclaimed, are limited in their ambitions and sold primarily as a companion device to their own mobile phones. When it comes to other kinds of wearable technologies, such as the Bluetooth headset and the wristband-based Fitbit and Fitbug, their appeal too is largely limited to early adopters.
Some analysts think that this does not bode well for Samsung – estimates of smartwatch prospects vary widely, from Credit Suisse’s $50bn of global sales by 2018 to Canalys’s relatively meagre 5m sales by the end of next year – but those close to Samsung remind critics that there were MP3 players before the iPod, touchscreen phones before the iPhone and tablets before the iPad. Samsung is seeking only to put the thing together in such a way as to offer something that is uniquely appealing.
But what will this product actually do? Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dell and others are all rumoured to be betting on smartwatches. A 2.5” screen, however, is not one on which much typing can be done, nor is it likely that consumers will want to talk directly into their wrists.
It will, in part, be a device to notify users about other connected devices, from tablets to the phones which now live in pockets and are often extracted either because they’ve issued some vibrating alert or – as often – to tell the time.
Ironically, however, the Samsung smartwatch, is likely to have just 10 hours of battery life. When fully in use, this raises the prospect of a watch that will tell the time for less than half the day. But a low-power mode is not likely to be beyond the wit of Samsung, and anyway many consumers are evidently quite happy pressing a button to know the time. It will be more convenient to press one on the wrist.
The news that Google is itself looking to make a watch itself, too, indicates that the company sees a future in the category, and a need to spur on the manufacturers that use its operating system. We can look forward to an advertising battle at the very least, according to Janko Roettgers, of tech blog GigaOm. “Samsung’s Gear is expected to one day compete with Apple’s much-rumoured iWatch.
Throw in a Google-made competitor, and you can be sure that we are going to see a whole new marketing war that will make Samsung’s smartphone ads against Apple look like child’s play.”
There is, however, another battle playing out in this new arena too: Samsung Galaxy Gear is rumoured to use Samsung’s own operating system. While it will talk to Google’s Android operating system, it may not need it at all. So this is also Samsung’s attempt to do to Google what Apple did to Microsoft – put a stake in the ground that says the platform is its own too.
That, potentially, lays open a whole new front: Microsoft has suffered in recent years because of the diminishing importance of Windows in the face of Android and Apple’s iOS. Just as the dominance of tablets usurped Microsoft and challenged its most pivotal product, so Samsung is betting that, long term, we will be wearing more and more of the technology it seeks to sell consumers.
While a watch might look like a gimmick in 2013, but by the time it’s connected to smart shoes, smart fabrics and smart homes, Samsung’s decision to go it alone would start to look rather shrewd. And if the victor is Google or even Apple, it will pose yet more challenges for Microsoft.