It’s been more than 60 years since Dick Tracy introduced the concept of the two-way radio watch to comic readers around the country. As is the norm with these things, what was once fantasy has become a reality. Today’s smart watches are capable of things Dick Tracy would have found implausible in his day. With functionality that goes well beyond just keeping time, today’s smart watches are part of the same technological progression that has given us smartphones, iPods, and Google Glass.
While the smart watch is certainly capable of much more than your average analog timepiece, the functionality it offers is not anything new to the tech sector. They certainly can’t do anything that your smartphone can’t do, and there is plenty they can’t do that your smartphone can. Where they do excel, of course, is in their ability to shrink the tech down to size while streamlining the apps you need to get by. What’s important to remember, though, is that we are still in the infancy of miniaturized technology. Tomorrow’s smart watches could make the iPhone of today look like something from the stone ages.
What is a Smart Watch?
Most 30-something adults can remember when calculator watches came on the scene. These wonders made a watch more than just something to tell time with. With early computer technology inside, the calculator watch was one of the first steps towards the ultra-portable computers we have today. Early versions of the smart watch were capable of playing games, calculating math problems, and even performing simple translations.
The ones on the market today, of course, are much more advanced. Capable of running a full operating system, playing audio and video files, and taking pictures, today’s smart watch is essentially a computer on your wrist. Color screens, touchscreen capability, Bluetooth connectivity, and the ability to run apps are a few of the more common modern-day features.
Because a smart watch is much easier for a runner to wear than a cell phone, it’s no surprise that much of the industry’s focus has been on fitness. Sport watches provide several features that speak to the fitness crowd. Activity tracking technology, GPS functionality, and training apps make the watch a dream come true for runner, lifters, and other athletes. Many smart watches also include features that measure your heart rate, track your route, spit out lap times, and transition easily between various sports.
The Major Players in the Smart Watch World
The smart watch has been hailed as the next big thing for several decades now. Today’s smart watch lineage can be traced back to the Pulsar NL C01. Made by Seiko in 1982, the Pulsar was hardly impressive by today’s standards. Storing only 24 digits of information, the NL C01 and its immediate successors failed to grab anything more than a highly tech-focused customer base. 1990 saw the technology move forward with the introduction of the Seiko Receptor, a watch that could also function as a pager. It wasn’t until Samsung’s 2009 S9110 and its Bluetooth connectivity, however, that the future started looking bright for wearables.
Like any other facet of technology, smart watches are pushed forward by a handful of innovative companies and brands. Pebble Technology, Sony, Samsung, and Qualcomm are a few of the visible companies at the top of the food chain. It’s not an insignificant market by any means; nearly two million smart watches were sold in 2013. The vast majority of these were for the Android operating system, and a healthy subset of these were produced by Samsung. Of course, this doesn’t predict lasting market domination by Samsung and Android. As we’ve seen in other areas of technology, the winds of change are swift and merciless.
Today’s Current Top Smart Watch Models
Samsung is the early leader in the smart watch arms race, pulling away from the competition with its Galaxy Gear. Retailing for just under $300, the Galaxy Gear has sold more than 300,000 units since its debut in 2013. Though Samsung has run away with the early lead, it is far from critic-proof. In their review of the watch, tech-focused website DigitalTrends.com noted the watch’s slow gesture-response time, its relatively limited selection of compatible apps, and its poor notification system. Still, if you’re looking for reasons to discredit the whole smart watch field, you have to remember how far we are from the finish line. Early MP3 players were equally as unimpressive.
Other top sellers include the Pebble Smartwatch, the Sony SW2, and the budget-priced GSM Quadband. Early crowd sentiment seems to favor Pebble’s version of the technology. Its high Amazon ratings and generous critical reviews have made it the benchmark for mass-market smart watch technology. Reviews are still trickling in for the 2014 Pebble Steel, and we will have to see if they retain their critical dominance with an influx of new competitors.
The Current Breed of Smart Watches
One of the most exciting things about delving into an emerging technology like the smart watch is seeing what’s around the corner. There are no shortage of innovations being made in the field. Just this year, Google announced that they were throwing their hat into the ring with Android Wear. Besides bringing with it integrated features like voice command, social media applications, and fitness functionality, Android Wear will doubtlessly continue to solidify Android’s OS dominance in the smart watch world.
As you might expect, though, Apple isn’t too far behind. While they have been slow to enter the race, plans are already on the table for an iWatch. Rumors abound when it comes to Apple’s new wearable, but facts about the device’s development have been slow to emerge. Industry speculators expect to see the iWatch hit the market by either the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015, at which time we could begin to see a seismic shift away from the Android platform.
As speculation increases on Apple’s intentions and Google’s plans begin to crystallize, we have a number of smart watch choices ready for market. CES 2014 provided industry critics and tech-fans alike with an insight into the next generation of smart watches. Some of the standouts included:
Pebble Steel – Building off crowd-sourced financing, Pebble developed their original smart watch with their investors in mind. The Pebble Steel remains true to the technology of their popular original while adding some aesthetic changes meant to appeal to a wider customer base. Since the “ugliness” of today’s smart watches are what many consider its biggest weakness, the Pebble Steel is a fairly significant step in the right direction. Pebble has also introduced an app store in the hopes of attracting innovation from tech companies.
Omate TrueSmart – It’s not surprising that an emerging technology in the 2010s would be so commonly funded by crowd-sourcing. The Omate TrueSmart, like the Pebble, was funded through donations. It goes a step beyond the typical smart watch’s limitations by cutting out the middleman. Most smart watches connect to laptops and iPhones through Bluetooth, but the TrueSmart acts as its own phone. With the help of an integrated SIM card, Omate’s entry into CES allows you to make calls, text, e-mail, and browse the Internet without the assistance of another device.
MetaWatch – MetaWatch’s 2013 involvement in the smart watch category was mostly mediocre. Their presentation at CES 2014, however, shows that this is a company bound for greater things. Dropping the “Watch” part of their name in favor of the cleaner-sounding Meta, they have stripped the smart watch to its essentials in the hopes of attracting a slew of new users. If the smart watch can make the jump from tech-geek chic to mainstream acceptance, it will be led by the sleek, efficient models embodied by Meta.
Kreyos Meteor – Along with Pebble and Omate, Kreyos managed to secure its funding through crowd-sourced financing. The resulting model was on display at CES, and fans were impressed with the level of professionalism emanating from their exhibit. Counting on support from the fitness demographic, the Kreyos Meteor is packed with features that should appeal to anyone with an active lifestyle. Apps that can analyze your golf swing or count your calories prove that Kreyos has done their best to hit their market niche. You can pre-order the Meteor for $169, but there is no word yet on when their ultimate release date will be.
What The Future Holds For Smart Watches
With all of the major software and hardware companies involved in the smart watch market, the future may look inevitable for wearable technology. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case. Fitness and health features currently dominate the wearables market. Bands, bracelets, and watches provide a benefit to active lifestyles that don’t permit lugging around a tablet or even a phone. But the question remains whether or not the masses will see a reason to add a new device to their growing collection of mobile computers.
Anyone with an eye on technology can predict the future of something as basic as the microchip, but predicting the market rise of something as niche as the smart watch invites a lot of folly. We never know when the next big thing will take over the marketplace. Beats headphones are more highly priced than many of their critically-acclaimed competitors, but they are running away with the marketplace due to design and advertising. Now companies like Sennheiser and Audio-Techina are shifting their approach to copy their success. Better, in business, isn’t always “better.”
Of course, a murky future doesn’t prevent research companies from making inferences from data trends. Juniper Research did just that in 2013, predicting that smart watches would find universal acceptance over the next few years. While only a million smart watches were shipped to stores in 2012, Juniper expects to see more than 36 million shipped by the end of 2018. NextMarket sees even greater things ahead. They predict sales of more than 300 million by the end of 2020. Whether these numbers materialize or not depends on a few factors.
If smart watches are ever to penetrate the mainstream, they will have to do so through two primary avenues. Better aesthetics and better marketing will see smart watches finally get their chance to shine on a new level. Once these watches are fully able to replace your smartphone, you may also see more people willing to trade one for the other. Will we see that happen in the next few years? If not, customers will probably need to see some significant price drops before they spend their money on a supplementary device. Today’s smart watch technology may require a price under $100 to see mainstream acceptance.
With Google, Apple, crowd-sourcing, and consumers hungry for the technology, however, smart watches could very well be poised for their big breakthrough.
If you’re an early adopter, there are several excellent models hitting the shelves this year alone. Be sure and inform yourself regarding the different features and technologies available before you make your purchase.
But, if you’re the type that prefers to wait until things settle a bit, you can probably save a lot of money by waiting to see which direction the winds blow first!