At an event in Berlin today, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Gear, a $299 smartwatch that improves upon the decade of smartwatches that came before it (Pebble, Sony, Metawatch, Microsoft SPOT) but still doesn’t give consumers a convincing reason to buy one. As expected, it syncs with some Samsung smartphones, showing alerts and letting users send and receive calls, and check emails and text messages. But the watch gets only one day of battery life, which means you have to charge it nightly like you do your phone (and having tested various wearables that have this requirement, it means you are much less likely to get into the habit of wearing it than a wearable with 10-day battery life like the Fitbit Flex). It also may not live up to the durability claims of other watches like the Casio G-Shock, although I haven’t tested this personally—again, a deal killer when it comes to wearables.
Samsung’s motivation for launching the Gear is straightforward: As smartphone growth slows, Samsung (and other consumer electronics makers) seek new sources of growth. We see the body as the next frontier for personal computing. And the wrist is the one of the most accepted places on the body for consumers to wear a sensor device: Forrester’s data shows that 28% of US online adults and 44% of EU-7 online adults say they’d be willing to wear a sensor device on their wrist, compared with 10% of US online adults and 15% of EU-7 online adults who say they’d wear them as glasses (other form factors fall in between, and some are less popular, such as tattooing a sensor on your skin, which appeals to 3% of US or EU-7 online adults).
So why are we so skeptical of Samsung’s smartwatch? It’s nothing against Samsung. It’s that there are very few functions you could perform better on a watch than on a phone (or other form factor, like glasses, or a simpler wearable without a battery-hogging LCD display). Send a message without taking out your phone? Ok, we buy that—but voice recognition on any device I’ve tested (Google Glass, Android phones, iOS, Mac OS, Windows Phone, car OSes…) is flawed enough that the inconvenience of trying to correct mistakes outweighs the benefits. Take a picture? I give this one to Glass (if only the camera were higher resolution!) Payments, maybe, would be easier on a watch—but mobile payment growth has been sluggish and it’s doubtful that NFC-enabled watches would change that. Monitoring exercise and activity is definitely easier on a wrist-based device than on a phone, but simpler LED displays like the Nike+ FuelBand or Misfit Shine get the job done with a battery that lasts much longer. Smartwatches don’t have the aesthetic flexibility of other wearables like the Shine or the Jawbone UP; they appeal much more to men than women and even so only work with sporty looks. I have yet to see GQ models sporting big honking smartwatches (though I did enjoy the Vogue spread with models in Google Glass in the September issue).
Samsung is pursuing a spaghetti-on-the-wall product strategy: Launch a smartwatch and maybe it will stick. Maybe Samsung will tap into unmet demand with this product, disproving naysayers as it did with the Galaxy Note (which succeeded after many 5-inch competitors failed, from the Sony Milo to the Dell Streak). But my bet is that smartwatches are sci-fi inventions that are already anachronisms in this modern world.