The Smartwatch – the Next “It” Item?

While the smartphone has taken the world by storm and gained millions of fans and users within the past few years, there is a gadget that promises the same functions – all on your wrist. The battle for customers in the smartphone market will possibly switch to the watch market as many large tech companies like Google and Apple plan to launch their own version of a smartwatch.

So what exactly is a smartwatch? A smartwatch is a watch that connects wirelessly with a smartphone through Bluetooth and takes in wireless information to display news, weather, email, social network notifications, incoming calls, and more. Some smartwatches also offer GPS navigation, fitness tools, gaming, and remote music controls. The smartwatch enables users to receive notifications and control various smartphone functions remotely without having to constantly check their phone.

While they may not have yet popped up on the general public’s technology radar, smartwatches are not new products. They have been around at least as early as 2003 with Microsoft’s SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watches that delivered information like news and the weather. These watches did not garner much interest due to  high costs and bulkiness, with production ending in 2008 and a #15 ranking on CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy’s “The decade’s 30 biggest tech flops list”. However, there are rumors that Microsoft plans to re-enter the smartwatch market with a new design.

Currently, Sony and Pebble are two of the major players in the smartwatch market. Sony’s second-generation smartwatch, the SmartWatch 2, was released this June and can be used as a regular digital watch, or can be used with Bluetooth and one-touch NFC pairing with Android smartphones to access other features. It has a square color screen where users can view email and text messages, handle incoming calls, and adjust music settings remotely. But while the SmartWatch 2 boasts over 200 apps benefitting from its previous release, it falls short of the Pebble watch in terms of iPhone compatibility.

Pebble Technology, a startup from Palo Alto, launched its smartwatch with a black and white e-paper screen (saving battery life) in 2013. In need of capital, Pebble raised more than $10 million within 40 days from 68,929 backers on crowd funding site Kickstarter, becoming the most highly crowd-funded project at the time. The Pebble watch works with both iPhones and Android devices through Bluetooth to send notifications via silent vibrations. Pebble has arguably one of the most successful smartwatch products on the market, with at least 275,000 orders as of July 11, 2013.

The Pebble lineup of Smartwatches

There has been much fervor in the developing smartwatch market, with the biggest tech companies gearing up for a launch later this year or next year. Apple, Google, and Samsung have all been confirmed to be working on smartwatch products.  Apple reportedly will launch the “iWatch” in 2014, and has already attempted to register “iWatch” as a trademark in many places, such as Taiwan, Russia, Mexico, and Japan. According to Bloomberg, Apple has employed 100 designers and engineers to work on the new iWatch and has filed at least 79 patent applications containing the word “wrist”. Apple’s strong brand image and reputation for sleek and quality products seeks to give a strong boost to the smartwatch market, just like it has with the iPod and the iPhone. Marshall Cohen, an analyst at NPD Group asserts that “Apple can merge fashion with function,” and that a smartwatch from Apple “could triple the size of the watch business in a year or two. They have the opportunity to get everyone that owns a cell phone to go out and buy another watch.” Compatibility with the iPhone and other products is sure to be a plus with consumers as well.

Could this be the new iWatch?

Google has already delved into the wearable technology market with the Google Glass. Motorola, owned by Google, has put out its own version of the smartwatch with the Motorola MotoACTV sport watch, which can be connected with a smartphone but also has some autonomous fitness functions such as GPS exercise tracking and step tracking.

Samsung will reportedly launch a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, to be announced at the same time as the Galaxy Note 3 in September this year at the IFA (International Franchise Association) conference in Berlin. Google and Samsung will most likely pair their watches to be compatible with Android devices and apps.

Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis research firm, states “2013 may be the year of the smartwatch” as “components have gotten small enough and cheap enough”. ABI Research, a market research and intelligence firm, projects that more than 1.2 million smartwatches will be shipped in 2013. But will the line of new smartwatches be able to garner more than the modest successes of its predecessors? It is debatable whether the average consumer will believe a smartwatch is necessary when he/she has a smartphone. A smartwatch is more of a smartphone accessory, and a smartphone has access to all the same functions and more with a larger user interface. But on the other hand, having these smartphone functions on a watch could make life easier, especially in situations where it’s more polite to glance down at your wrist versus taking out your phone. Manufacturers will have to tackle the challenge of creating display sizes that are large enough to be useful yet still stylish enough to attract both men and women. Adequate battery size and pricing could be concerns as well.

As for now, Pebble’s smartwatch priced at $150 is available at local Best Buys, with other smartwatches sold mostly online. We can only wait and see whether the upcoming lineup of smartwatches will live up to the hype.