The past few months have seen a flurry of rumors surrounding supposed smartwatch prototypes from several giants of mobile tech. Companies like Apple, Google, LG,Samsung, and Microsoft have all found themselves at the blogoshere’s rumor mill as speculation—of varying legitimacy and detail—swirled around what’s shaping up to be the next big thing: wearable mobile tech. With devices like Pebble's crowd-funded offering making waves, 2013 might be the year of the smartwatch.
Following the whirlwind success of Pebble's Kickstarter, the smartwatch hype hit a fever pitch in February when Bloomberg reported that unnamed sources had told them that Apple had assembled a team of over 100 individuals, covering every aspect of product design, from engineering to marketing, to develop a wrist-worn device. The revelation about the so-called iWatch led to a series of claims from other companies about similar devices being in the pipeline, at varying stages of development. Google’s Android team—separate from the X unit that’s working on Glass—is reportedly taking on the task of designing a Google branded smartwatch. Likewise, LG is toying with the idea of wearable devices—one alleged smartwatch and something similar to Glass—that run on either an Android or Firefox based OS.
Determined not to be left behind, Samsung’s Lee Young Hee, executive vice president of mobile business, said: “We’ve been preparing the watch product for so long. We are working very hard to get ready for it. We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them.” And although the company has kept its lips sealed about specifics, sources familiar with Microsoft’s supply chain claim that they’ve ordered component parts for 1.5 inch touchscreen displays and interchangeable wristbands. The designers and engineers responsible for Xbox accessories and the Kinect sensor are reportedly hard at work on the device.
These rumors aren’t indicative of the first time the industry has tried to make “Fetch” happen. In 2004, Microsoft debuted their wrist-worn SPOT device, an early take on the smartwatch that allowed users to access data over FM radio waves, including stock information, weather reports, and news. A prohibitively high cost—the SPOT watch was $800 at launch—and cumbersome subscription fees for MSN Direct led to the device’s demise in 2008. Similarly, Samsung has struggled with its own wearable tech track record.
In 2009, Samsung’s S9910 made its debut in France with a 450 euro price tag that was off-putting to some consumers. While the watch’s design aesthetic was one of the sleekest and most sophisticated we’ve seen for wrist-worn tech, the device also failed to take off. High costs and limited functionality were the death knells for smartwatches in the past, so what’s different now?
With the fevered hype surrounding Google Glass and the unprecedented success of Pebble’s Kickstarter campaign, it would seem that the times, they are a-changing. Wearable tech is becoming less of an electronic novelty and more of a feasible progression in the world of consumer technology. If a startup like Pebble can wrangle over $10 million dollars in crowd-sourced pledges, then it’s undeniable that there is a very eager market for smartwatches and no one wants to be the odd man out when the next tech trend hits. While previous attempts at incorporated advanced electronics into wrist-worn time-telling devices basically amounted to over-sized, overpriced and overblown novelties, devices like Pebble are capable of locating their own niche into the growing constellation of electronic devices that are a part of consumers’ daily lives.
IGN Tech's own editor Scott Lowe has been converted to the church of Pebble and admits to using his device daily, even after completing his 9.4 review for the device. Connectivity is an increasingly vital part of people’s lives and Pebble’s ability to sync with users’ phones and deliver automatic updates and easy access to texts, emails, and incoming calls might just be the inevitable way of the future. With products like Pebble and Glass paving the way for wearable tech, the consumer market might be showing itself to be amenable to the idea of constant contact with their devices.
Aesthetically, we’ve come a long way from the days of Samsung’s earliest foray into smartwatches (their SPH-WP10, launched in 1999, was a particularly brutal eyesore). Curved glass is a popular choice for smartwatch design, with speculation abounding about Apple’s attempts to create a curved-glass device and LG’s own pioneering technology in its smartphones has the potential to be adapted to much smaller displays.
The emergence of smartwatches as a viable piece of wearable tech owes something to the greater functionality smaller devices can claim. If a wrist-worn device can incorporate the health-related functionality of Nike’s popular FuelBand and Pebble’s streamlined accessibility with a sleek, clean aesthetic, easy cross-platform syncing and truly open-source development, the market just might prove itself to be more amenable to the advent of the smartwatch as something more than a flash in the pan.
Bearing all that in mind, it’s important to note that smartwatches have a steep hill to climb to buck a trend created by the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones. As phones got smarter of the years, the traditional watch slowly began going the way of the dodo. Traditional time pieces frequently fell by the wayside as phones became the primary mode of telling time and IGN’s own comments sections on our smartwatch related news items have seen more than one user comment on the death of the wristwatch in their personal life. Even though products like Pebble have proven popular in theory, it’s still too early to tell if smartwatches can undo the damage created by their telephonic brethren.
Time will tell if smartwatches are here to stay, but judging from the momentum for their development and production gathering at places like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, they’re a trend that’s not likely to abate anytime soon. Do smartwatches have a place in your daily life? Or are they just a neat hat trick being developed because we have the technology but not necessarily the market desire? Let us know in the comments.