Published September 11, 2013
You won't be buying an Apple watch any time soon. So is an Android smartwatch or Google Glass in your future?
Apple's announcement Tuesday was that it's refining its smartphones rather than introducing any amazingly great new gadgets. So all eyes in the tech industry are turning elsewhere for the next big thing and that looks to be in the area of so-called wearable computing.
At the sprawling IFA consumer electronics show currently underway in Berlin, Samsung delivered an equally sprawling presentation replete with a live string-ensemble performance to launch its Samsung Gear smartwatch last week. The device is reminiscent of color LCD watches of years gone by, but with some important new features.
The Gear acts as a peripheral to a smartphone, wirelessly connected to the handset to deliver text messages, weather forecasts, calendar alerts, and some nifty specialized apps of its own. There's a pedometer, for example, to track your daily calorie burn, and you can answer quick calls on the watch, holding it up Dick Tracy style to your ear. You can even take a photo with the watch using the 1.9-megapixel camera built into the strap. Just swipe your finger across the watch screen and tap. No more fumbling in your pocket for the phone, tapping out your password, and then missing the shot entirely.
The 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display of the watch is crisp and clear. You can swipe through apps with a flick of the finger. There are already 70 compatible apps, including Evernote, Path, and RunKeeper; you can flip through music tracks stored on the phone and in an emergency send your location to a preset contact telling them you're in trouble (try doing that inconspicuoulsy with just a phone). The Gear watch will last for up to 25 hours on a single charge -- far longer than any smartphone -- and there will be more apps in future to take advantage of its built in accelerometer and gyroscope.
The watch will be available in the U.S. next month and the price that's being floated is $299. That may seem excessive, especially given that the Galaxy Gear will only work with the latest Samsung smartphones and tablets (pending a software upgrade). But it's a lot less than Google Glass.
Of course, Google Glass is much more high tech. It can do nearly everything a smart watch can do. It can take pictures and video (the camera is sharper than Samsung's, for example), and sound is transmitted to the wearer via bone conduction. A prismatic display reacts to head and eye movements, and it conveys a sleeker sense of style. Google Glass is still very much in the beta stage, with the first limited run models costing $1,500. But next year Google promises a consumer-ready model will appear (at a lower price).
Ultimately, the question is, which is geekier, wearing a pair of goggles or a smart watch?
Google Glass is certainly an imposition on your face. Those of us who wear glasses out of necessity don't think of spectacles as desireable, and it's not likely Glass will change our opinion. Flicking your head and looking up at the private screen is also inherently awkward. Then there's the creep factor. The minute someone notices you've got a pair of Google goggles on your face, they start backing away (or ask you a lot of nerdy questions...and then start backing away).
A watch, even a really imposing model, does not present the same technological affrontery. We're accustomed to sports watches, chronographs, and a myriad of wrist straps and bracklets. The Samsung Gear just adds a load of convenience to your wrist -- without the creep factor.
Critics have pounced on the smart watch as just another over-priced, superfluous gadget. People already have watches, "Why wear another?" they ask. But the demographic that Samsung is targeting -- the under 30 crowd -- doesn't use a watch today. They use their smartphones to tell time. So rather than displacing an old Timex or beloved Rolex, the Gear watch is perfect for bare, younger wrists that have been waiting for something new. I'm usually skeptical about adding another gadget to my collection (lord knows I've seen enough of them -- remember the Spot watch?), but this time the convenience factor of being able to glance at your wrist rather than juggle a smartphone has me hooked.
So should Apple get into the watch race? There's certainly plenty of other companies joining in. Sony is showing its SmartWatch 2 at IFA now as well, but there are few details about its features or availability yet. Nearby in Germany at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Nissan just debuted its own car-centric smart watch, the Nismo Concept Watch, which will monitor a driver's pulse and performance (you're driving too fast, keep off the gas). And Qualcomm is seeding the market with a Toq reference design of a smart watch intended to spur manufacturers to mass produce models using Qualcomm chips and a nifty low-power display.
I think smartwatches will be a hit, if not this fall then certainly by next year. Glasses, not so much. And don't count out Apple. It's famous for waiting for all the right technology to coalesce, and then coming out with a killer product. It still has time.