Could the smartwatch one day reach 100 million units?

With Samsung's Galaxy Gear officially joining the smartwatch market, let's look at what manufacturers have to do to make the technology a major category in the mobile market.

Samsung introduced the Galaxy Gear smartwatch earlier this week. Google confirmed last week that it bought smartwatch maker Wimm. Sony introduced a smartwatch in June. And consumer icon Apple is rumored to have 100 people working on a smartwatch that it may introduce alongside a new iPhone tomorrow.

Clearly, smartwatches have the potential to be a signifcant new category of consumer devices. But reaching the scale of tens or hundreds of millions will depend on whether the devices become more than a conversation starter. To reach 100 million shipments, smartwatches have to “socialize” the many dangerous, impolite and unnecessary interruptions that smartphones cause without diluting the incredible productivity and entertainment they deliver.

The place to start the discussion is made apparent in the last sentence of the interview with Samsung’s Catherine Schneider in New York at the announcement of the Galaxy Gear smartwatch last Wednesday.

"We all have the same problems…of being too disconnected with what is going on around us because we are always looking at our phones. Instead we can look at the wrist…"

Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker reported earlier this year that smartphone users check their phones 150 times per day, which is the core of the problem Schneider described and should be the design center of every form of wearable technology.

Not too big compared to a sports watch and not too nerdy - colorful and smart-looking with a cleanly designed aluminum bezel - the Samsung Galaxy Gear passes the fashion statement test. What is essentially a prototype is very appealing aesthetically.

But the second test is more challenging: will the Galaxy Gear make people less "disconnected"? To better define "disconnected," consider two smartphone personas. One user robotically takes his or her phone out of a pocket frequently; the other constantly holds the phone in his or her hand, attention breaking in response to every audible notification. Each could use a smartwatch and its behavioral makeover.

Then consider that quickly glancing at the wrist is more culturally acceptable, perhaps because it’s become a common part of society since the wristwatch was invented a century and half ago.

Many people have replaced their watches with smartphones, resulting in a less socially tolerant method of checking the time, because checking the time also means reading texts, social networking updates, emails, and whatever else may have popped up. All of these notifications can be moved to a smartwatch, and could be checked without the user becoming fully immersed in an app.

Demonstrations of the Galaxy Gear showed that Samsung is trying to help users filter these interruptions by moving these notifications to a wristwatch. It gives an added bonus by reducing the length of time people are interrupted by their devices. When the Galaxy Gear is within proximity of a Bluetooth-tethered smartphone, the smartphone remains unlocked so the user does not need to take the time to type in a passcode to read a notification.

However, two main obstacles stand in the smartwatch category’s path to 100 million shipments. First, a Bluetooth headset isn’t integrated into the phone/watch combination. The Galaxy Gear’s speakerphone capability seems like an unnecessary and potentially embarrassing interruption. One should be able to choose to receive phone calls privately on a headset.

The second challenge is a lack of interoperability, which affects all competitors. This early version of the Galaxy Gear only works with the Galaxy Note III, though it is expected to work with more devices. But due to the way the Galaxy Note III pushes notifications to the Galaxy Gear, it seems like it will only work with devices that run Android Jelly Bean 4.3. This opens a very long discussion about integrating the very different needs of individual consumers with different versions of Android tied to different types of cloud services for productivity, communications and entertainment. Then Apple needs to be factored in. Will there be a Galaxy Gear app for the iPhone? Integration is not impossible, but it should be considered a requirement for mass adoption.

Smartwatches are an intriguing category. How quickly they reach the 100 million mark depends on how well they filter distraction and increase productivity and entertainment. Giants like Apple, Google, Samsung and Sony have great consumer marketing reach, but others, like Pebble and Metawatch, could break out by making "connected" people less "disconnected" with better software.

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