Reasons why smartwatches' time will come

Darien Graham-Smith
5 Sep 2013

Last night, Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Gear watch; and the general response was "meh". Friends, colleagues and PC Pro commenters all seem to have quickly concluded that the device is a gimmicky, impractical gadget.

To which I say, hold on. The "smartwatch" idea is a pretty new one, and such ideas can take a while to show their full potential. My initial reaction to the original iPad was decidedly dismissive; even the first-generation iPhone attracted plenty of doubt, and not just from me. Yet as Apple iterated the hardware and invested in the software, we shortly all came to realise that actually these gadgets were just what our lives had been missing all along.

So even though the Galaxy Gear – and previous ideas such as the Pebble – hasn’t yet set the world alight, I’m cautiously optimistic about what the smartwatch might become. I certainly don’t think the objections I’ve heard are showstoppers. To be clear, these seem to boil down to three basic arguments:

“We all have perfectly good smartphones already.”

I frequently miss messages and phone calls because I fail to hear my phone ringing in my pocket (or fail to notice the vibration). A buzzer strapped to my wrist would be a much more effective way of getting my attention. Moreover, every time I do get a message on my phone, I have to rummage in my pocket, pull out the phone and swipe to unlock it in order to read the text. I’m not saying that’s an insufferable imposition, but would I prefer to momentarily glance at my wrist? Hell yes. Admittedly, the Galaxy Gear doesn’t permit this yet – it just shows a snippet of the message – but it’s an obvious improvement for future smartwatches.

“This isn’t for me because I don’t wear a watch.”

You’re free to start wearing a watch any time you see one you like. It’s not like watches are tremendously uncomfortable or unfashionable. For sure, sticking a smartwatch on your wrist is going to be less cumbersome and conspicuous than sticking a pair of Google Glass spectacles on your face.

“The battery will constantly need recharging.”

The Galaxy Gear promises a 25-hour battery life. To me, that sounds like you'll have to take the thing off your wrist and plug it into a charger every night, and I agree that this is a problem. But you don’t have to look very far down the road to see future models slashing power consumption, and adding more convenient charging methods. For example, it might be possible to extend battery life via a combination of solar power and kinetic charging – a technology already harnessed by some "dumb" watches, whereby the everyday movements of the wearer drive a tiny internal generator.

I’m not saying that the Galaxy Gear is a solid bet. Like the original iPhone, it’s a first step in a promising direction, but to bring the idea into the mainstream will take further inspiration and investment; the device we saw yesterday will need to evolve into a Galaxy Gear 3G, as it were. It remains to be seen whether Samsung has the vision, and the will, to implement such a transformation.

Perhaps paradoxically, one thing that might help is if Apple were to finally unveil its own long-rumoured smartwatch. This would give the concept more legitimacy in the eyes of consumers, and, not to put too fine a point on it, might give Samsung some useful ideas to build on.

I do have to wonder, however, whether Samsung, having beaten Apple to the launch, might in fact now be in a position to obstruct an Apple rival from seeing the light of day. That probably wouldn’t be the best thing for smartwatches as a whole, but it would be a somewhat poetic act of table-turning.

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