Samsung Vies for Smartwatch Lead with Galaxy Gear, but Critics Await Apple

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The wrist-race for the smartwatch market is off and running on the heels of Samsung’s reveal this week of its Galaxy Gear watch—as well as other viable entrants, including Sony’s new SmartWatch 2 and Qualcomm’s Toq, which was unveiled the same day as Samsung’s watch.

Projected to be a market worth $50 billion by 2017, the smartwatch industry has consisted of mostly rumors and speculation as to who, what, where and when would debut this futuristic bite of wearable tech, a natural progression for the saturated smartphone market. But with expectations high, mobile tech companies like Apple and Samsung face a steep and slippery slope, charged with creating a value-added device but one that appeals to a mass market. 

While the smartwatch category has essentially existed for years thanks to Dick Tracy, Apple’s first attempt at an iWatch (2010’s iPod nano watch) and current iterations like Sony’s SmartWatch and the crowdfunded Pebble, the tech industry’s big players have only recently made the jump to seriously explore the options that wearable computing provides.[more]

While Samsung’s Galaxy Gear was widely anticipated, its reveal will perhaps pale in comparison to the rumored iWatch reveal from Apple, which may debut as soon as the company’s Sept. 10 expected iPhone event.

After all, as Business Insider notes, this isn’t the first time that competing tech brands have tried to unveil their own versions of devices ahead of rumored Apple launches, though most, like Microsoft and HP’s bid to introduce the first tablets, are quickly overshadowed by Silicon Valley’s behemoth brand.

Nevertheless, Samsung, the world’s largest mobile phone maker, has made its mark with Galaxy Gear, a 1.6 inch touchscreen that allows users to make calls, draft and read messages, control music on their accompanying Samsung smartphone, track their physical activity and take pictures with its 1.9 megapixel camera. The Gear, priced at a market high of $299, comes in six different band colors, and will be available in over 140 countries by the end of the month. 

Impressive, yes, but not perfect. Computer World notes that analysts were disappointed in the device’s lack of biometric sensors that monitor body function levels like heart rate, a big selling point of current wearable fitness trackers such as those by Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike’s FuelBand. “I was expecting more sensors and more focus on fitness from Samsung,” Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “The price is high for what the device does. Overall, I think this is more an overpriced toy than a device that really drives value to consumers.”

The toy-like sentiment is shared by others. “The fact that so many writers still feel the need to compare real-life gadgetry to an imaginary policeman’s fictional gizmo is a reminder that none of the many wearable communicators which have hit the market over the years have nailed the concept,” writes Time’s Harry McCracken of Dick Tracy’s high-tech wristpiece. “We’ll know smartwatches are here to stay when they’re useful-but-unremarkable products which don’t prompt anyone to suggest they’re a fantasy come to life.” 

The Samsung Gear is limited in other ways too. The device’s use is restricted to Samsung devices, specifically the new Galaxy Note 3 phablet that was also unveiled this week in Berlin, though Samsung said the watch will work with other Samsung smartphones in the future. Other devices, like the Pebble Smartwatch and Qualcomm’s Toq, work with various devices, connected through Bluetooth. 

Qualcomm’s entry, which can play music, make calls and view messages is widely accepted as a “reference” device for the processor company’s color Mirasol screens, which are touch-enabled and can be clearly viewed in bright light—a feature that Qualcomm hopes will become a priority among wearable tech devices. But what many tech companies seem to be forgetting is that wearable needs to be functional—and fashionable. And no company is as much a trendsetter than Apple. 

“Samsung will do a great job in raising the profile of this new category, but I don’t think we will see a massive shift,” CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood told Reuters. “I think it will only really come alive if Apple would push into it real hard, because they would then make it a fashionable item. Because a watch is a fashion item. It really is.”

But could Apple, which has struggled to create any innovative products or big hits since the passing of Jobs, really overtake the market? 

“There are some who will look back on this seminal day and breathlessly say that Sept. 4, 2013 was as important as the day that Steve Jobs held aloft the first iPhone,” writes ExtremeTech. But the debut of such less-than-perfect devices that have already been deemed “useless” by some analysts “creates the perfect opportunity for Apple to swoop in and steal the market, creating another iPhone- or iPad-like phenomenon.” 

Analysts, tech enthusiasts and Apple devotees alike will be waiting with bated breath come Sept. 10. 

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