Samsung's Galaxy Gear and the problem with smartwatches

The latest development in the smartwatch trend is just another example of how not to make a smartwatch.

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Credit: IDGNS/Martyn Williams

Today’s crop of so-called "smartwatches" teases at the huge potential of wearable computing devices, without actually fulfilling very much of that promise.

The hype around these new devices – exemplified by the Samsung Galaxy Gear introduced this week and the widely expected Apple iWatch – reveals the intense interest in making computing more immediately and ubiquitously accessible than even smartphones and tablets can manage. But the devices themselves remain little more than clunky first steps.

Today’s smartwatch iterations, which count the Pebble and Sony Smartwatch 2 along with the new Samsung, face two critical problems:

  1. They look ridiculous
  2. They don’t do very much.

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

Have you seen these things? They all look like pumped-up and pimped-out versions of the first digital watches from the 1970s. Back then, only the geekiest of the geeky wore digital watches for more than a few months after the novelty wore off. They were simply too dorky and unfashionable to be shown in public.

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Today’s smartwatches need to understand – or reinvent – why people wear watches in the first place. Look, people happily pay thousands and thousands of dollars for fancy watches that are worse at telling the time than the cheapest digitals, because they look great and tell a powerful story of style and status. If manufacturers want to make smartwatches mainstream, they need to learn from Cartier and Rolex – or even Seiko and Skagen - not Samsung and Sony.

Tell Me Something New

The Galaxy Gear is little more than a smartphone accessory that puts camera, speakerphone and mini-display functions on your wrist. Woo-hoo! Many young people have already given up wearing watches in favor of pulling out their smartphones to check the time. What’s in this feature set that would convince them to put something on their wrist?

Smartwatch makers need to keep looking for unique functionality that truly takes advantage of being located on the wrist instead of in the pocket. They need to think of wrist-located computing devices, not smartwatches. For now, in fact, the bracelet style fitness trackers, like the Jawbone Up, FitBit Flex and Nike Fuelband, offer more compelling features and better style than the smartwatches. Oh, and they work as watches, too.

Can smartwatches overcome these problems? Sure, and they no doubt will over time. Perhaps Apple’s iWatch will have the functionality and aesthetics to overcome the genre’s current limitations. Or maybe success will have to wait for the next generation…or the generation after that.

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter. Wearable computing will happen because the technology keeps improving and the potential benefits are very real – for consumers and even businesses. But these things are going to have to get a lot better before they get popular.

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