Smartwatches have been around for more than a decade. The problem is that they haven't been very smart or very useful. The new crop of smartwatches, from Sony, Qualcomm, Pebble, and others, are primarily smartphone accessories, offering notifications for messages, phone calls, and more, along with a variety of apps, wristband colors, and watch faces.
Enter the Galaxy Gear. Samsung is raising the bar for what a smartwatch can be, aiming for functionality closer to that of Google Glass. You can answer phone calls, control Galaxy Gear with your voice, take pictures, and share content -- just like you would on a smartphone, but you don't have to pull it out of your pocket.
Galaxy Gear is "something that defines tomorrow," an "engineering marvel" that embodies "simplicity, craftsmanship, and glanceability," Pranav Mistry, head of the Think Tank Team for Samsung Research America, said at the product introduction event in Berlin.
Galaxy Gear is packed with a gyroscope, accelerometer, pedometer, and a camera embedded in the wrist strap that captures 1.9-megapixel images and 10-second video clips at up to 720p, with sound. The camera can also be used to augment reality, Mistry said. Gear users can grab images of foreign language signs and translate them automatically or point the camera at a product to surface more information about it.
Samsung expects to have about 70 native apps, optimized for the 1.63-inch Super AMOLED screen, including eBay, Path, Evernote, Pinterest, Pocket, and RunKeeper.
However, raising the bar doesn't mean that Samsung got it right with Galaxy Gear. It won't be the iPhone or iPad of smartwatches in terms of establishing a new, vibrant market. There is too much friction in its gears.
The battery life isn't watchlike, lasting only a day. The Gear will work only with Samsung Galaxy devices, and currently just with the new Galaxy Note 3 and Note 10.1. The user interface requires some learning, and apps need to be customized to work on the device.
As a $299 super-accessory for Samsung Galaxy smartphones, Galaxy Gear will mostly appeal to early adopters who can't live without the latest cool, wearable gadget.
Canalys estimates that 500,000 smartwatches will be sold this year, growing to 5 million in 2014. Generator Research expects less than 9 million smartwatch sales in 2014, but growing to 214 million in 2018.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others hoping to conquer the smartwatch market will be watching closely as the Galaxy Gear becomes available. It's a first-generation product, and in its usual way, Samsung will iterate the device, refining features, adding more apps, lowering the price, and making it compatible with additional devices in the coming months.
Samsung's main rival, Apple, has a team of at least 100 people working to redefine the smartwatch category, and is expected to unveil its progeny in 2014. It's unlikely the "iWatch" will match the prodigious feature set of the Galaxy Gear -- but given Apple's track record, I'd be willing to bet that the battery will last longer than a day, and it will look good.