Tech giants devote time to smartwatches

Samsung has become the first of the big three to launch the eagerly awaited smartwatch. We take a look at the opportunities.

Samsung: unveiled Galaxy Gear at the IFA last week. Credit: Getty Images
Samsung: unveiled Galaxy Gear at the IFA last week. Credit: Getty Images

The smartwatch is one of the most glibly assumed inventions ever. Dick Tracy wore a phone-watch in the 40s and James Bond has carried an array of pimped-up Omegas since the 60s. So it’s a wonder that any serious inventors ever got around to actually inventing one. How unrewarding to invest all that manufacturing effort to realise a gadget your grandfather took for granted as a ten-year-old.

But Samsung, the insatiable Korean technology carpet-bomber, has birthed the Dick Tracy watch by launching Galaxy Gear at the IFA. Never afraid to plug a gap in the market, Samsung will hope to blow open the crevice scratched out so far by the Kickstarter sensation Pebble (and other equally OK but less zeitgeisty, dubiously branded offerings such as the Martian Passport Watch, Cookoo and I’m Watch).

Galaxy Gear is a wrist-mounted touchscreen Android device that will pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth. Its core usage is as a second screen for your phone, allowing you to monitor notifications, send messages or speak hands-free. Rumours suggest that Galaxy Gear 1.0 will only pair with Samsung phones, but that will surely change. This first design is not going to win any style prizes, but sexier glass versions are in the patent cupboard.

So smartwatches will be a "thing". And the battle between the world’s three tech sluggers starts to rumble. Samsung out first, Apple’s over-rumoured iWatch perhaps early next year and Google has the double guns of a rumoured watch and possibly the real market shaper, Google Glass. This is the first skirmish in the wearable technology war.

The big question is: should you, or your brands, care? Surely, if there was ever a cure looking for a disease, it is the smartwatch. Smartphones are already smarter than we are, so who’s going to spend another $200-plus upgrading theirs? Well, so far, the thinking falls into three camps.

Camp one thinks holding a phone in your hand is too inconvenient. A wrist-mounted version is swifter for today’s compulsive phone-glancer. With the addition of a 3G or 4G sim-carrying option, you could even say adios to your smartphone altogether. But can you imagine wearing something big enough that your sausage fingers could actually type on? And I feel we aren’t ready for an entirely voice-activated phone experience. Siri, I’m sorry.

Then there is camp two, which I suspect is more straightforward and truthful. It observes that technology is too cool and expensive to hide in our pockets. The watch industry has for a hundred years thrived on being the only acceptably conspicuous way for a man to say "I am seriously wedged", so why not mount a big, shiny computer on your wrist that says the same thing? I suspect this is where the good men of Geneva will play.

Finally, there is camp three, which is the most interesting. It says: forget phones (you have one of those), this is a wearable personal sensor.

A more useful Nike+ FuelBand. This is where Apple will likely camp, and it makes sense. Your phone is awfully clever, but it can’t read your vital signs from your handbag. A smartwatch could. It could be an open platform for all sorts of third-party personalised services and apps. It could relay medical information, or gamify your movements, or keep you off the pies. Quantified self, innit.

Your phone is awfully clever, but it can't read your vital signs from your handbag. An smartwatch could

I think there will be plenty of uptake from active or health-minded consumers – a cohort that is free-spending and technology-literate. That opens up opportunities for all sorts of brands that play in this space. These brands can suddenly access rich user data to customise their services – without having to develop or partner up to deliver the expensive hardware bit.

It’s worth saying that, in parallel to all this wristware, I believe other wearable tech will also take root. From embedded sensors in clothing (our client McLaren has developed business shirts that can inform your management how hungover you are) to heads-up devices such as Google Glass, there will be plenty of people quantifying themselves without leaving the Seiko at home.

So perhaps the wearable tech debate hangs on a more philosophical question: what’s your problem? Is it you, or the world around you, that needs optimising?

Paddy Griffith is the strategy partner at Work Club