Wearable devices promise to be the next stage in the evolution of personal computing. The ground is fertile for a new generation of lightweight, always-on, connected devices that we will wear on our bodies as digital extensions of our selves.
Wearable computing is nothing new, though. The dustbin of history is filled with failed “wrist computers” and clunky heads-up displays, proof that getting people to accept and use wearable devices is an insanely difficult problem.
An evolution of field pioneer Steve Mann’s wearable devices since the 1980s
Fortunately, we have insanely capable companies working to crack the problem, employing mind-boggling R&D budgets and some of the world’s brightest intellects.
Samsung, the largest smartphone maker in the world, is one of those companies, and the Galaxy Gear will be its first modern smartwatch. Expected to launch on September 4, the Gear is Samsung’s attempt to gain an edge over a host of competitors interested in smartwatches, including tech luminaries like Apple, Microsoft, and Motorola, and ambitious startups such as Pebble.
But why is Samsung building a smartwatch now? Sure, it’s not the first time the Korean conglomerate is dabbling into making wrist-worn computers. But the context is different.
The technology is ripe
Technologically, Samsung is obviously in a far better position now to deliver a compelling wearable device than it was, say, 14 years ago, when it released the SPH-WP10, the first watch incorporating CDMA technology, pictured below.
In 2013, we have processors the size of a fingernail that consume minute amounts of energy, yet deliver incredible computing power. High-resolution AMOLED touchscreen displays offer superb quality while keeping energy consumption low, and flexible displays are just around the corner.
Battery technology has also relentlessly improved over the years, albeit at a slower pace than processors or displays. Modern connectivity options like NFC and Bluetooth LE enable seamless integration with smartphones and other devices. The list goes on and on.
A head start
Then there’s the competition, and primarily that from Apple. After kick-starting the mobile revolution, Apple is now reportedly looking towards wearables as the next big target for disruption. Samsung knows it, as do many other companies, so it scrambled to enter the wearable race to avoid being caught flat-footed again.
Apple watch concept
There’s Google to worry about as well. The Mountain View giant is much bolder in its aspirations than Apple, and it makes no secret of its ambitions. Google Glass is already a success within the tech community, and, if Google plays its cards right, Glass may be a massive hit with consumers as well. Samsung simply can’t afford to let its partner, regardless how close and apparently benevolent, get too far ahead in the race.
Sergey Brin sporting Glass
And there’s a multitude of other potential players – in addition to a flurry of startups, virtually every big name in consumer electronics vies, openly or not, for a piece of the wearable action.
Looking for the next cycle
Samsung faces a looming problem – market saturation in the smartphone business. In other words, a majority of the people that want a smartphone have already bought one, while those who have one find it harder to justify acquiring a new one. As a consequence, Samsung can no longer expect the explosive growth rates it enjoyed in the past years.
There are only so many people you can sell a smartphone to. Forecast by Asymco
Compounding the problem, aggressive competitors such as Huawei and ZTE are slowly accumulating market share, while more and more consumers seem more interested in “good enough” phones, than in the cutting-edge products that bring Samsung the biggest margins.
Faced with these challenges, Samsung might hope for a brave new world of wearable computing, where a new growth cycle can bring back healthy margins and wide-open growth potential.
The prestige of being first
Throughout its existence, Samsung has been generally regarded as a fast-follower, rather than a first-mover. And then there’s the persistent chip on the shoulder that is Apple’s accusation of stealing the design of the iPhone and iPad.
Pioneering a new generation of successful devices would definitely benefit Samsung, by improving its brand image with customers and partners alike. A successful Galaxy Gear could also do wonders for Samsung’s smartphones and other products, and consolidate the company’s position at the top of the smartphone industry.
Innovation can be more than a buzzword
Is the time right for wearable computing?
The reasons we’ve hitherto gone through pertain to Samsung’s business. What about consumers? Are we ready to embrace wearables? The answer is worth a separate post, but put simply, I think that, with current mobile technologies, wearable computers can be attractive and compelling, if done right.
Will the Galaxy Gear be a hit? That depends on a lot of factors, including product design, performance, apps, price, and marketing. We’ll find out soon enough.