The Samsung Galaxy Gear and company: Setting the stage for the Apple iWatch

On Wednesday at IFA, with the simultaneous unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Sony SmartWatch 2, and Qualcomm Toq, the smartwatch market was created out of thin air. There are some who will look back on this seminal day and breathlessly say that the 4 September 2013 was as important as the day that Steve Jobs held aloft the first iPhone. They will say that this was the moment that wearable computing, after decades of dreaming, finally became a reality.

Me? I think these smartwatches aren’t smart at all, fall a long way short of actually providing useful wearable computing – and perhaps most terrifyingly, they have created the perfect opportunity for Apple to swoop in and steal the market, creating another iPhone or iPad-like phenomenon.

What is a smartwatch?

Much in the same way that a smartphone is a smart mobile phone, a smartwatch is a smart wristwatch. A smart wristwatch should fulfil all of the normal wristwatch criteria, and then add some smart functionality on top of that. A wristwatch must be comfortable, highly customisable to suit the wearer, and run for months or years without being recharged.

The Gear, SmartWatch 2, and Toq, to put it mildly, are absolutely nothing like wristwatches. They all have non-customisable straps, they’re all fairly bulky, and all have battery life that can be measured in hours rather than weeks.

At best, these smartwatches are wrist-worn mobile devices – but even then, they are crippled by their “from the future” appearance, limited battery life, and poor wireless connectivity. None of these devices have Wi-Fi connectivity or a cellular modem – they all rely on being paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth for access to the Internet or for making calls. None of these devices look particularly good on your wrist. Heck, except for the SmartWatch 2, they’re not even splashproof as far as we can tell.

Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm have all inadvertently stumbled upon the intrinsic difficulty of producing a compelling wearable computer – and the reason why, until now, wearable computing has remained thoroughly off limits for sensible companies. Basically, without delving too far into the complexities of the matter, it is incredibly hard to build a computer that is small, flexible, powerful, and has excellent battery life. We will get there eventually, but as you can see from these bulky smartwatches with minimal battery life, functionality, and connectivity, we’re not there yet.

Here comes Apple

The ideal smartwatch would basically be a drop-in replacement for your current timepiece, whether it’s a Casio or vintage chronograph. The smartwatch would be just the timepiece, allowing you to change and resize the strap to suit your needs. Rather than looking like something from the future, the ideal smartwatch would be attractive and fashionable enough that it fits in with the rest of your getup. Perhaps the perfect smartwatch has the same physical design and dimensions as a Rolex, with moving hands and a winder, but a digital clock face that can be modified to show different data.

And, yes, I suspect it will be Apple that brings the first real smartwatch to market. I still think we’ll be waiting another year or two for the iWatch to appear, due to the severe design and engineering restrictions imposed by such a tiny form factor, but Apple is probably the only company that has the design and manufacturing expertise to pull it off – not to mention the premium brand cachet that will make it much more acceptable to wear a Designed by Apple in California smartwatch on your wrist.

The beautiful irony, of course, is that this sudden spate of underbaked smartwatches seems to stem from a rumour that Apple was developing the iWatch. Terrified of being pre-empted by another killer Apple product, it would seem that Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm all rushed to get their smartwatches onto the market before Apple. Ha.

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