Samsung finally announced its smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, and the initial thoughts from analysts aren’t good. Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps says “smartwatches are sci-fi inventions that are already anachronisms in this modern world,” while Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi says the Gear is “more an overpriced toy than a device that really drives value to consumers.”
No kidding. Samsung’s device is overpriced, at $299, and underpowered – it has a 1.6-inch display and 1.9 megapixel camera and you can make Bluetooth calls through it with newer Galaxy phones. But it lacks the biometric sensors, such as a heart rate monitor, that many had been expecting.
Odds are good the Gear will go down as one of the fastest forgotten products of 2013, right up there with the Microsoft Surface tablets and Ouya game console. And oh yeah, Qualcomm also announced a similar soon-to-be-a-memory device. Overall, there are at least five good reasons smartwatches will be quickly forgotten as a category.
1. Aesthetics. Have you seen these things? They’re positively giant and ugly and entirely reminiscent of those calculator watches nerds used to wear in the eighties (my apologies if you were one of them). Sure, someone with a high degree of design sensibility – perhaps Apple – could come along and make something sexier looking, maybe with a flexible glass display. But even then, Moore’s Law can only currently cram the needed components and operating system down so much. Judging by the size of the smartwatches we’ve seen so far, we’re not there yet. And let’s not even talk about smaller smartwatches for women – those might be years away.
2. Battery life. Samsung says the Gear will have a full day’s worth of battery life. Even if – and that’s a mighty big if – that estimate turns out to be accurate, it’s still nowhere near good enough. How often do you have to recharge your regular watch? Oh right, almost never. It will only take owners forgetting to recharge their smartwatches a few times before deciding they’re not worth the hassle.
3. Margins. The watch business is pegged at about $60 billion a year, with good profit margins of roughly 60%. The problem is, high-priced luxury watches from the likes of Rolex and Omega make up much of both those numbers. Smartwatches are coming across more like cheap, commoditized gizmos rather than high-end precision instruments, which is why analysts are saying $300 is too expensive. If that’s too much for such a device – and it probably is – prices will quickly drop, at which point the question for the makers becomes: why bother?
4. Market. It’s funny that observers are upset about the Galaxy Gear not having the sorts of biometrics found in gizmos such as the Fitbit and Jawbone, because there’s no real evidence the people who use those devices are interested in a smartwatch. Sure, fitness gadget owners are also likely to own a smartphone, but that probably means they’re even less inclined to carry a third device. Fitbits, Jawbones, Nike Fuelbands and the rest all tell time, so users are already pretty well covered in that department.
5. Brand. The real problem with smartwatches and all such “wearable” computers is fashion. The likes of Adidas, Rolex or even Ray-Ban are established and desirable accessory brands. Samsung and Apple may have good reputations in the world of technology, and their phones are accessories of a sort, but that doesn’t automatically translate over into what people wear. In fact, the tech companies have the opposite working for them, at least in the West. Anyone spotted wearing a Samsung or Apple smartwatch will clearly be marked as a tech nerd. It’ll be fun to watch the companies fight this fight, but I have a feeling they’ll lose. The only way they’re likely to make any inroads into what is already a small market is to allow their own brands to be subsumed by the established fashion brands, like Ray-Ban sunglasses with Google technology under the hood, for example. Will the tech companies go for that? Maybe, but I’m guessing it won’t be worth their hassle.