The Smartwatch's Time May Be Nigh
It seems every tech company is building a smartwatch, and startup Pebble already has, but it isn't quite clear whether they'll become as ubiquitous on consumers' wrists as those distinctive white iPod cords hanging from their ears a few years ago. Smartwatches have never been cool, despite several efforts to market them over the years. Can Apple change that? Can Microsoft? What will it take to sell consumers on wearable tech?
There's a smartwatch-athon in the making.
Apple is working on one, according to rumors that seemed to gel earlier this year. Samsung has taken the lid off its plans, though no specifics have been announced, and LG is rumored to be building one too. Kickstarter phenom Pebble began shipping its smartwatch several weeks ago, and on Monday rumors began circulating that Microsoft was also looking to produce a wearable timepiece that could do much more than just tell time.
Besides all the watches, there's a variety of headgear in the works -- most notably, Google's Glasses.
The ingredient missing from this building frenzy is market demand. Will consumers actually get on board and embrace such devices? So far, apart from very specific uses -- such as monitoring one's heart rate or other fitness indicators -- the general reaction to the smartwatch and other new personal gadgets has been "meh." Yet they are coming, and from the looks of things, that trickle may soon become a flood.
"Wearable tech is slowing entering the marketplace," said technology analyst Stephen A. Blum of Tellus Ventures Associates. "That's one of the potential benefits of the flex screen Samsung demoed at CES -- it can put a larger but less intrusive screen on your wrist. Google Glass and other head-mounted displays and cameras can do the same thing if it's attractive enough to wear."
However, many of these attempts appear just as uncool as those 1980s-era calculator watches.
"Smart watches are still a solution that is looking for a problem," said Roger Entner, principal analyst for Recon Analytics. "The form factor does not easily lend itself to provide a user experience that delights."
Issues such as small screen size, battery size and weight are much more pronounced in a watch-size form factor, said Entner.
"Right now this smart watch craze is just a reaction to Apple submitting a patent and everyone else running after Apple's next great idea," Entner told TechNewsWorld.
Microsoft on Board
Apple's filing of the patent may be the catalyst for launching a new category, but that doesn't mean enough actual consumer interest will follow to make it a success.
"This is another bandwagon. Microsoft is doing it because Apple and Google are doing it or threatening to do it," said Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates.
"The dynamics of the market haven't changed, but technology has evolved," he pointed out.
"Perhaps a glanceable format would work now as a peripheral to a high-mobility device," Kay added. "There may be enough people who would support a market."
One such market already exists, and that includes the aforementioned wearable fitness market. Cyclists, runners and other health-minded enthusiasts have long relied on heart-rate monitors that transmit data from a chest strap to a watch or other wearable device.
With the advent of fitness apps, this functionality largely has been transferred to the mobile handset, which can provide much more information and details than a mere watch. However, while running or cycling, it can be difficult to actually take the time to look at a smartphone screen.
Here is where a companion device could come in very handy. In this case, a mobile handset could remain tucked in a pocket while the watch could wirelessly receive key facets of information. Some companies, such as Wahoo Fitness, have already created devices along these lines, but the question is whether a smartwatch could fill this void as well.
"The hot smart watch at CES was the Pebble, which was funded via Kickstarter,"said Blum. "It links to a smartphone via Bluetooth too, providing a convenient way to see messages or control functions like timers or audio players. Other manufacturers, such as Casio, were showing watches that did similar things although on a less ambitious scale."
However, this technology is still aimed squarely at a niche.
It has "limited appeal to competitive cyclists, but it could be very attractive to touring cyclists and triathletes. It's easier to read map segments on a watch," Blum added.
"If you're doing swim, bike and run workouts, it's versatile enough to handle all three," he told TechNewsWorld, "and the sheer geekiness of it will appeal to triathletes, who are very focused on gathering and analyzing individual data, off line and in real time. A connected watch enhances that capability, across multiple sports."
Not So Dumb
Given that Microsoft, along with Apple and Google, is betting on this, could consumers be enticed into desiring a smartwatch even if they didn't know they wanted one before? This would be far from the first time a new product category created its own demand.
"This is a key direction of technology," said Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst with Tirias Research.
"Just because the past solutions have sucked does not mean that we may not eventually get it right as the market, technology, and ecosystem evolve. Just consider that one of the first tablets was the Apple Newton, which was horrible -- but look where tablets are today."
Beyond fitness, this technology has the potential to stream loads of information, even over great distances, directly to the wearer's wrist. So what's not to like?
"Imagine having your entire PC and smartphone on your wrist, and all you have to do is walk up to a keyboard and screen and start working, or a TV and start watching," McGregor told TechNewsWorld. "This is years away and requires creating a distributing solution that balances the performance of the device, the cloud services, and the communications mediums -- but it is coming."
It's also worth noting that smartwatches won't necessarily be companions to smartphones or function as little smartphones themselves. The devices could go in different directions.
"In the inevitable comparison against the now-venerable smartphone, they inevitably will come out short," observed Entner. "The way to solve this issue is by not just making a smaller, less capable smartphone, but by solving the issue in a different way. A voice-centric approach that only uses the screen as a crutch might be the right way to go."