Devices iWatch News, smartphones, Technology, Technology blog, Wearable technology — September 2, 2013 18:24 — 0 Comments
Smart watches: what are Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft up to?
With the Galaxy Gear expected to be unveiled this week, Samsung’s rivals are thought to be working on their own wrist-worn devices
“The wrist is interesting,” said Apple chief executive Tim Cook at the All Things Digital D11 conference in May 2013, when being quizzed about his company’s potential plans for wearable technology in the years to come.
“For something to work here you have to convince people it’s so incredible, that they want to wear it… If we had a room full of 10 to 20-year-olds and we said, ‘Everyone stand up that has a watch,’ I’m not sure anybody would stand up.”
Nevertheless, Apple is one of the technology giants at the centre of growing speculation about smart watches. Along with Samsung – whose Galaxy Gear is expected to be unveiled later this week – Google and Microsoft, the wrist is proving interesting for anyone who’s anyone in the smartphone world.
Research firm Canalys recently claimed that 500,000 smart watches will be sold this year, but then 5m in 2014 thanks to the entry of Apple, Samsung, Google and other technology firms into the market, alongside traditional watch-makers.
Rival IDC even thinks that demand for wearables (including watches) could slow down tablet sales over the coming years, reducing its forecasts accordingly. So what do we know – or, to be more accurate, what’s been rumoured – about the plans of the big tech firms?
Apple has been rumoured to be making a smart watch for some time now – it’s a perennial rumour alongside an Apple television, hence those questions for Cook. Apple’s registration of iWatch as a trademark in Japan in June this year only fanned the flames of that speculation.
That came after a New York Times report claiming that the company had been “experimenting with wristwatch-like devices made of curved glass” and running iOS software.
Past employees have been speculating too: interface expert Bruce Tognazzini claimed the “iWatch” would “fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem. It will facilitate and coordinate not only the activities of all the other computers and devices we use, but a wide array of devices to come”.
Fellow ex-Appler Jean-Louis Gassée provided his own opinions back in March, suggesting that “the iWatch will enrich the iOS ecosystem: Reasonably useful on its own, but most important as a way to increase the value/enjoyment of other iDevices… at least for now.”
In July, reports suggested that Apple had made a number of “acqui-hires” of small companies to build its “iWatch” team, sitting within a wider wearables group at the company. The Financial Times claimed that Apple had been forced to turn to outsiders to help with “hard engineering problems that they’ve not been able to solve” in-house.
In August, reports in Taiwan claimed that two local companies, Quanta and Inventec, had won the contracts to build Apple’s first smart watch, with suggestions that they could build up to 38m units in 2014 – although CIMB Securities analyst Wanli Wang predicted 63m units shipping in the first year after the device launched.
Plenty of details have leaked out about Samsung’s smart watch plans: it’s expected to be called the Galaxy Gear, and will be unveiled on 4 September ahead of the IFA consumer electronics trade show in Berlin.
Last weekend, VentureBeat claimed a scoop: actual pictures of the Galaxy Gear, although the description – ”a blocky health tracker with a camera” – didn’t exactly whet the appetite.
The emphasis was firmly on fitness though: “My initial impression was that it’s a new wearable fitness device to rival a Nike Fuelband or Fitbit Flex — a smartphone companion rather than a smartphone alternative,” wrote journalist Christina Farr. Separately, shots of Samsung’s app for controlling the watch have also leaked, via the @evleaks Twitter account.
The expectation: a device designed as a companion to Samsung’s Galaxy range of Android smartphones. As with other companies mentioned here, the inspiration is thought to be as much fitness-tracking bands by the likes of Jawbone, Nike and Fitbit rather than trying to squeeze a smartphone’s guts into a watch-shaped device.
It’s just emerged that Google quietly bought a smart watch startup called Wimm Labs in 2012: the company had released its own WIMM One smart watch in 2011 before shutting down in 2012 due to “an exclusive, confidential relationship for our technology”. Google.
WIMM had been trying to build a platform for developers rather than just a device, although within Google it’s now part of an even bigger platform and developer community: Android. Yet the other interesting thing about the WIMM One was its ability to work as a standalone gadget with its own apps, rather than simply controlling apps on a paired smartphone.
News of the acquisition made previous Google smart watch rumours worth a second reading. The Financial Times reported in March, for example, that Google was working on a smart watch project within its Android unit, and cited a patent application by the company from 2011 for a “smart-watch” including a “tactile user interface”.
The Wall Street Journal followed that up in June with claims that a smart watch was being developed alongside a games console, both powered by Android, as Google moved more into hardware. There was a hint that the two devices may be in competition in terms of securing a commercial release: “The Internet giant hopes to design and market the devices itself and release at least one of them this fall,” as journalist Amir Efrati put it.
Microsoft and smart watches? There’s some history behind that: the company’s SPOT platform tempted the likes of Fossil, Suunto, Swatch and Tissot when its first watches launched in 2004, but by 2008 it was toast, filed alongside Tablet PC in the company’s possibly-too-soon filing cabinet.
And in 2013? Suppliers to Microsoft told the Wall Street Journal in April that the company was sourcing components for a smart watch prototype, including 1.5-inch displays.
In July, The Verge followed up, suggesting that devices were now being prototyped “directly under the Surface team as the firm moves its wrist-worn device closer to reality”. The trouble with all Microsoft rumours right now, however, is that with chief executive Steve Ballmer on the way out, it’s unclear what his replacement’s strategy will be regarding schemes at the prototype stage.
And the rest?
Pebble Technology has sold more than 85,000 of its Pebble watches since raising $10.3m to make them on Kickstarter. Sony is already on its second device, the SmartWatch 2, which went on sale earlier this year.
High-end smart watch the Hyetis Crossbow has sold more than 300 units – and that’s at $1,200 per device. Intel is also testing some smart watch devices in its labs.
“The watch is kind of — if you want to put the time on it, that’s fine,” chief technology officer Justin Rattner told a Bloomberg conference in June 2013. “But if you’re talking about texting today, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just look at your wrist?”
“Almost every major consumer electronics manufacturer is now working on a smart watch” noted Quartz in July 2013. And that’s not to mention the traditional watch manufacturers.
“Suddenly, everyone’s discovered the wrist,” Casio’s chief executive Kazuo Kashio told the New York Times in August. “We’ve known for a long time it’s prime real estate. We’re prepared.”
What does this all mean?
How much of the excitement about smart watches is due to the desire within the technology industry (yes, including journalists) for a new category-shaking range of devices, rather than actual demand from buyers or a strong sense of why these smart watches would be useful?
“Smartwatches are a great idea – except for the ‘smart’ and ‘watch’ parts,” noted Time’s Harry McCracken in June. He went on to outline the barriers: battery life, display quality and “no true killer apps” – although he admitted that fitness-tracking gadgets may offer the most interesting path forward.
Even so, the interest in the future of the wrist – from Tim Cook and his fiercest rivals’ companies – is genuine, as are the questions around the category’s future.
Will these devices be more wrist-worn controllers for smartphones (and other devices) than running their own apps? Will they kill off the fitness-tracking bands, or provide the companies making those like Jawbone, Fitbit and Nike with a new product category to move into? Those questions won’t be answered until 2014 at the earliest, whenever the Galaxy Gear goes on sale.
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