If you’re the kind of person who regularly gets gadgets come Christmas time, then you might be expecting Santa to drop a smartwatch in your stocking. After all, there’s a ton of them out there and even the mainstream players are getting involved, with Samsung claiming to have sold over 800 000 of its Galaxy Gear devices.
If technology research company Gartner is to be believed however, then you’re still more likely to get a tablet or fitness tracking band than a smartwatch. The reason? Smartwatches just aren’t cool enough yet.
“Samsung and other well-known vendors have recently entered the smart watch space, yet the products we’ve seen so far have been rather uninspiring in terms of design, available apps and features,” says Annette Zimmermann, principal research analyst at Gartner. “As a result, Gartner predicts that wearable devices will remain a companion to mobile phones at least through 2017, with less than one percent of premium phone users opting to replace their phone with a combination of a wearable device and a tablet.”
According to Gartner, the majority of products that have been designed or launched so far have displays that many consumers will find “unstylish” due to their bulkiness. The research company reckons that vendors should try to find a balance between an appealing (slim) design and long battery life, as both aspects will play a significant role in consumers’ purchasing decisions. Early technology adopters may not place their main emphasis on design but mainstream consumers tend to make purchase decisions based on overall appearance, material and colour.
“Users expect more than just more convenience from a new product category that claims to be innovative and priced at US$200 to US$300,” says Zimmermann. “The same price will fund basic tablets with a good feature set. For the coming holiday season users are more likely to pick the basic tablet option rather than a smart watch as the value proposition is clearer.”
The research company also notes that smartwatches should be able to sync with a variety of apps and devices, if they’re to be successful — something which is largely not the case at present.
“Interoperability and stand-alone apps give the smartwatch more value on its own — that is when it is not connected to a smartphone,” said Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner. “Even though smartwatches play a ‘supporting role’ to smartphones, designing the smart watch only to act as a secondary device will consign it to failure. Sensors, such as accelerometers, gyroscope, infrared, microphones and cameras, will give software developers greater flexibility to create apps for a broad range of usages.”
Some smart watches include the ability to pair directly with a Bluetooth headset to keep calls private and prevent music from being overheard by those nearby. Smartwatches may connect directly with Wi-Fi access points, which would enable wearers to access the Internet, send messages and make calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), independent of the smartphone.
“Bringing smart watches to life will mean vendors must be involved in fostering the developer community. Just as for smartphones and tablets, wearers will naturally expect numerous apps and services,” says McIntyre.
While Gartner is unwilling to predict who will come to dominate the smartphone space, it doesn’t look like having the best tech matters right now. As veteran technology journalist Arthur Goldstuck notes, the smartwatch war feels a lot like the one between Betamax and VHS a couple of decades back.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is the clear frontrunner so far, despite the fact that it only connects to a handful of the Korean manufacturer’s own devices. Indeed, it’s far eclipsed the Sony SmartWatch 2, which is capable of connecting any Android device.
Then again, the devices the Galaxy Gear can connect with have all sold well, and it’s a better device when it’s actually connected. That once again ties with Gartner’s prediction that smartwatches will be companion devices to smartphones for a good while yet.
The next exciting event we can expect in their near future is therefore most likely the introduction of a mainstream smartwatch aimed at iFanatics. For one thing it would give the Android manufacturers extra incentive to create something innovative and capitalise on the head start they have (the same is also true of the smaller smartwatch makers currently building for iOS compatibility). For another, it opens up the gap for a third-party manufacturer to build something that can sync seamlessly between operating systems. Now isn’t it about time for that?