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Smartwatches: Why Their Time Has Finally Come

Smartwatches: Present and Future

Enter the iWatch ... and Samsung, and Google

Pebble's success has not gone unnoticed. In fact, in a matter of months, smartwatches have become the It Gadgets of the consumer electronics landscape. Everybody who's anybody in consumer tech is working on one. Rumors — some more reliable than others — have the biggest names in tech preparing to ship their own versions of the smartwatch.

Samsung recently trademarked the product name “Galaxy Gear”, and the title could be a retainer for a smartwatch built with a bendable display.

Samsung recently trademarked the product name “Galaxy Gear”, and the title could be a retainer for a smartwatch built with a bendable display.

Google, Qualcomm, Samsung, Microsoft (try, try again), and others are all reportedly in the prototype stages. Of course, none of these is so breathlessly talked-about and secretive as Apple, which was recently revealed to have trademarked the phrase "iWatch" in Japan, Taiwan and Mexico. (In Europe and the United States, the trademarks are owned already.) The iWatch — if you believe the coverage to date — will sport a curved OLED display, be able to take your pulse and run dozens of iOS apps tailor-made for the small screen. Even if only a fraction of the rumors are true, the iWatch could be the company's most significant new product launch since the iPad arrived in 2010.

Joshua Flood of ABI Research believes that the entrance of Apple, Samsung and Google into this market will be significant, saying, "I think once one of the big technology OEMs begin to push their products ... then the product type will really take off."

But Geiser, who now runs the MetaWatch project independent from Fossil, doesn't seem overly concerned about the encroachment of the corporate world into a market built up by hobbyists, and that there will be room for everyone at the table. "It's the same as the way cars work. If we all bought cars just for transportation, we'd all have the cheapest car on the market," he said.

At the same time, Geiser's own argument points to trouble ahead for the ultimate size of the smartwatch market, and that the Apples and Googles of the world might be getting in over their heads.

When asked about Apple, Geiser responded, "I don't know if their approach works in the arena of fashion. Watches are fashion, and smartwatches are fashion. Breaking the laws of fashion is harder than breaking the laws of physics. That's an incredible burden from a design standpoint. What we wear is a very personal thing. We all wear things as a form of expression. I don't think technology is going to change that."

In other words, will an iWatch become a coveted accessory the way, say, a pair of Beats headphones are?

MORE:10 Killer Features for Apple’s iWatch

Smartwatch doubters

There's also the question of whether smartwatches really do enough to merit mass interest. Is freeing consumers from the tyranny of taking their phone out of their pocket really going to be enough of a killer feature to make this market worthwhile? Will there be a societal backlash against people constantly ogling their wrists instead of making eye contact?

Plenty of people think the era of the smartwatch still hasn't arrived.

Digital Orange Consulting analyst Paul Armstrong says, "I have no doubt smartwatches will fill a few stockings this Christmas, but I remain unconvinced that anyone (bar Apple or Google) will have a runaway success on their hands with these devices either because of design or functionality limitations … or because people just don't want to wear watches again."

"It’s easy to get caught up about how cool it is to have your smartphone linked up to your smartwatch,” argued ABI’s Flood. “However, the functionality and usefulness for smartwatches isn’t 100 percent there.

Forrester's Sarah Rotman Epps goes even further, saying smartwatches won't ultimately have much impact. Writing in April, she says, "[Google] Glass is a much, much more important story than any smartwatch story — whether that watch is made by Microsoft, Samsung, or even Apple…. [T]hey won’t fundamentally disrupt social norms in the way that Glass will."

Time will tell

Mention any of this cynicism to today’s smartwatch crowdfunders, and they’ll probably laugh in your face. Geiser locked up $300,000 on Kickstarter for his most recent project, the MetaWatch Strata. And another smartwatch called Agent, just followed Pebble by blowing through the million-dollar mark on Kickstarter. This one chips away at another common complaint of first-gen smartwatch buyers — battery life — by adding wireless charging to the mix.

Flood is optimistic that the market could ultimately have a serious impact. "I think it is a case of smartwatches proving that they have some real solid benefits to the average consumer," he said. "Eventually, we could even see smartwatches displace smartphones. However, that could be some time yet.

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