The advent of the Pebble, Samsung Gear, Moto 360, and the Apple Watch have led to the question: where are we now in the smartwatch market? This article hopes to explain.
The Smartwatch Debate: Form vs Functionality
On September 9, 2014, Apple entered the promising category of wearable tech. To be specific, watch-tech. A few days before that, Motorola released their smartwatch amid six months of hype. Winding a few days more, tech companies like Sony, Asus and the giant Samsung release their version of the smartwatch, with Samsung having had six incarnations of it already.
The first question to be asked, of course, is why do we need it? The hammer wanting a nail analogy. That was what was asked of the tablet before, and now it has garnered millions if not billions in sales. If, however, you are one of the many intrigued by the prospect of a wrist-worn timekeeper that can also function as an ersatz phone, then the notion of a smartwatch becomes attractive.
So where are we in the smartwatch market? It has become apparent that many companies have offered their take on watch-tech, and they have taken steps in the right direction, but no one company has ticked off all the boxes of the perfect smartwatch. And before Apple’s announcement, the watches offered either of two things: Form or Functionality.
Form vs Functionality
A smartphone is primarily utilitarian in nature. While the design has become an important factor in judging its overall value, it has come second to what the device can do. Apps, calls, and complex actions that supersede desktops or laptops (mini computers). It was status symbols, but it was never considered jewelry.
A watch, in contrast, was exactly that. For centuries, the watch offered one simple service: tell the time. It didn’t matter how it was made, who made it, it simply offered that one service—measuring the day as it rises and falls. With that as constant, the variable naturally had to be design; how a watch would appear, as it became apparent that the timekeeping device would be worn throughout a working day. Even as phones arrived to offer timekeeping services, it just wasn’t convenient enough having to take it out of your pocket just to find out the time, more so if you were in a seedy place and an expensive phone becomes a hot item. So the watch became an accessory that had to be acceptable—not exactly flashy, just convenient.
The wear-tech concept brought a new dimension to the watch: suddenly, watches can potentially be computers, too. Just as Google toyed with computerized glasses, nerds toyed with the idea of the super-watch. It, of course, wasn’t a novel idea, since it existed as regular gadgets of Dick Tracy and James Bond. But to make it reality brought a long wish list for enthusiast.
And suddenly timekeeping was no longer the service constant. Now there could be a myriad of services it could provide, even ambitiously as a computing device. It remained, however, an accessory of fashion/design, and it has been that way for so long it could not be divorced from that aspect.
That was why when computing watches Pebble and Sony Smartwatch came out, they provided only one aspect of the ideal smartwatch: functionality. The Pebble lasted days, and can function like first-gen computers, bringing notifications and messages. The Sony watch tapped into Android, a revolutionary OS appealing not only because of its structure but the thriving dev ecosystem that existed with it. But as Android Wear was introduced and new watches like the Samsung Gear, LG G Watch and so forth became available, it became apparent that they made the watch-tech into portable computers. The aspect of form was largely ignored. Even as the tech giant Samsung reincarnated their smartwatches several times in a span of two years, they just couldn’t perfect the design of the computing watch.
Motorola changed the game with the Moto 360. Coming hot on the heels of the first-gen watches like LG G Watch and the Gear Live, the 360 offered what potential buyers wanted all along: the attraction of form. They offered the traditional feel of the watch, using a rounded, traditional figure and a traditional analog face. This explains the hype drawn out within the span of six months—particularly because Motorola delayed in its release.
Now, functionality-wise, Google tried to recreate the service constant by making a universal OS called the Android Wear. This was a virtual sandbox that could be filled by developers familiar with the Android world. They have the advantage of years of a thriving ecosystem. Of course, the OS is still in its infancy, having been introduced only earlier this year. Therefore, functionality was already limited. (Though in terms of first-gen computing devices, Android Wear is already a big step forward).
As I said, Moto 360 came with the offer of form. It, however, was saddled with the still-growing functionality of the Android Wear, the presence of years-old internal processor, and poor battery life. And, just like many of the smartwatches, it needed the presence of a smartphone (even if any Android phone would do) to be able to function. Function was limited as accessory to the smartphone. So it had the promise of form, but it disappoints function-wise.
Before the coming of Apple’s Watch, Samsung’s Gear S provided the flipside to the form vs. functionality debate. By closing off the Gear S to the native Samsung dev ecosystem Tizen, it limited the potential speed, if not of the actual growth, of the software within. And that was too bad, because they introduced something the other smartwatches couldn’t provide: a degree of watch autonomy. Okay, so you still need to tether the watch with the later Samsung phones, and maybe notifications need to be updated with the phone present, but with the phone absent, you could make or take calls as well as messages. As I did mention before, however, it dismally fails the aspect of form owing to its size. (The necessity for such a size may be attributed to the computing power it holds, but still.)
Enter Apple Watch
So now Apple unveils its Watch. Does it change the game? Certainly. Despite the criticisms heaped at it as just another smartphone, with useless features, this is mostly nitpicking. Apple actually offered what other smartwatches couldn’t deliver: the compromise of form and function. Sure, its shape wasn’t round, or traditional, but it had a subtle feel to it—tech-y but being discreet about it. And the “digital crown” that allows to zoom in and zoom out is an honest-to-goodness real innovation that makes the Watch a killer device. Many smartwatches may have to up the game and maybe adopt some of its features to keep hold of the market. That much a game-changer Apple Watch has become.
That being said, it remains in a closed dev system. Apple has always been a closed-world with devices exclusive to their ecosystem. The iPhone, iPad and Macs have data existing within an iCloud, all within the Apple orbit. And the Apple Watch, as was explained, remains within that Apple orbit. This has remained a device for Apple users only.
Now, Android Wear has its appeal because of its generic attribute. Any Android phone can use a smartwatch using Android Wear. You don’t have to discard the old phone for a new one, and this is appealing since there is a trust-value already with a phone you have. And Android has a very thriving and wide-reaching dev ecosystem. Apple has just as much an expansive dev world, but they can’t tap into the Android market. I don’t want to go into the iPhone vs HTC/Moto X/Samsung/whatever debate, but Apple Watch’s dependence will force me into it. Should I really buy the phone to get the watch? This is the same question that was posed for Samsung before. Sure, the Gear 2 was good, but it was exclusive to Samsung phones only.
For Apple users, there’s an even more exclusive club for the Watch: iPhone 5 and above only. If you have an iPhone 4, you will be forced to buy a new unit.
So where are we in the wearable tech? Surprisingly close, considering the timeframe. Companies such as Samsung, Motorola and Apple have taken the right steps to perfect the smartwatch, and it’s a matter of opinion if you think one company’s efforts are “close enough”. But is it really close? Time (damn it, I was trying to avoid the pun) will tell.
(not-so!) Final verdict: If you have an Apple, and an iPhone 5, congratulations, you’re within the exclusive circle of the Apple watch. Lamentable is the plight of the less-than-iPhone 5 users, who can’t acquire any of the smartwatches available (There’s the Pebble, which is compatible with iOS and Android–if you want to go old school). For Android users (that includes the Samsung ones), if you’re willing to sacrifice function for form (though it does have respectable function) there’s the Moto 360. Despite its limitations it has sold out repeatedly on all its stores, online or otherwise. (Get the Motorola – Moto 360 Smart Watch for Android Devices 4.3 or Higher (Black)) The Moto 360 is actually one of those at the forefront of the smartwatch debate. But it has also been mentioned that LG has the G Watch R, which is looking more like the traditional sports watch. Whether it retains the same criticized aspects as its G Watch predecessor (retain the function, upgrade the form?) remains to be seen.
Then again, you could simply pass over the watches and wait another year for the next-gen to come. Doubtless the former watch-techs would be surpassed and who knows? Maybe we’ll find a watch with the beauty of a Moto 360, the autonomy of a Gear S, and the all-around wonder of the Apple Watch. Can you wait?
Note: Backlinks to articles to follow
Update 9/11/2014 2:44PM (that was fast): Okay, my bad. Sony Smartwatch 3 isn’t dual compatible. I’ve taken down the sections that talk about it. That was the Pebble Steel or the rumored Microsoft Smartwatch. But don’t you wish a major smartwatch did have dual compatibility? Anyway, tells you I didn’t do research.