Editors' note (February 21, 2014): This story was published in December 2013, but it remains relevant on the eve of Mobile World Congress 2014, where Samsung is expected to announce an update to last year's Galaxy Gear smartwatch.
Samsung won the race to put a stake in the wearable market in 2013. Next year, it will have to win the hearts of consumers and make a product people actually want to buy.
In September, the Korean consumer electronics giant unveiled the Galaxy Gear, a smartwatch that connects to a user's smartphone or tablet to provide alerts, take photos, make calls, and access certain apps. For Samsung, the device is more than just another gadget; it also marks an important shift in the company's position in technology: long known as a "fast follower" that's able to pick up, emulate, and even improve upon existing industry trends, it is now cutting its own path with the unproven watch.
So Samsung beat out Apple, which is rumored to be launching an iWatch sometime next year. But the early response has been tepid. Tech reviewers, including CNET, have criticized Gear for its high price tag, weak battery life, wonky voice command feature, and limited compatibility with other devices. (It only works with certain Samsung phones and tablets.) Samsung said it shipped 800,000 Gears to retail partners in the first two months the device was on the market, but no one is saying how many have actually been purchased by consumers.
The company, however, believes the segment can become a huge business, and it's already working on future devices.
"I am very confident," Young-hee Lee, Samsung's head of mobile marketing, told CNET shortly after the Galaxy Gear launched. "It's a matter of time before all people are wearing smart devices and living very intuitively and conveniently. Five years ago, our smart device wasn't in the middle of our life. Now, look at [us]."
Here's what Samsung can do to make sure those new products are more popular with buyers:
Figure out the "wow factor": Gear is a sleek, eye-catching device that allows users to do some interesting things, such as take photos with the touch of a button on the Gear band. However, what the device really lacks is a "wow factor" or something that makes it a must-have gadget. It's unclear what that could be for Gear, whether it's a hardware feature, service, or other item. But that's something that Samsung needs to figure out if it wants people to start lining up for its devices.
For the time being, Samsung should make Gear work with as many devices as possible. That includes the iPhone and other Android devices. Maybe even BlackBerrys and Windows Phones (although it can't be blamed for ignoring those last two). The wider compatibility could help Samsung win over more users at a time when wearable tech remains a niche category. The field is wide open with the iWatch still just a rumor, and only a handful of other viable smartwatch competitors.
Samsung doesn't have to go completely open (and it won't); it could keep certain features exclusive to its own smartphones and tablets, which would give users a reason to also buy a Galaxy S4 or Note 3. But making Gear work with more devices, right away, can only help.
More apps, please: Samsung can do all it wants to improve the hardware, but without developer support, the Gear is essentially a bulky, overpriced timepiece. The company needs to build up the community of developers willing to work with its smartwatch, enabling the creation of more apps and services.
Meet the Samsung Galaxy Gear
The possibilities for wearable services are almost limitless, but Samsung's still figuring out this part of its devices.
As CNET noted recently, the reason Gear doesn't have more apps right now is because the app store is still invite-only for developers. Samsung wants all Gear apps to provide a good experience for users, so it's closely controlling the development process.
However, opening Gear up to more developers could result in apps Samsung had never considered. One of those products could turn out to be that wow factor Samsung really needs. If Samsung really wants to create its own ecosystem, it will have to build its developer relationships. Gear is a good place to start.
Drop the price: At $300, Galaxy Gear sure isn't an impulse buy. The steep price tag puts the device in line with smartphones, tablets, and even some PCs, and makes it tough for many consumers to afford. Other smartwatches on the market retail for much less, such as the Pebble at $150 and the Sony SmartWatch 2 at $200. CNET calls the Pebble "the best smartwatch deal around." By cutting $100 to $200 off the Gear price, Samsung immediately gains a new crop of buyers.
Boost the battery life: It's bad enough having to worry that your phone will die before the end of the day, but your watch? No one wants to charge his or her watch every single day, but that's what tends to happen with the Galaxy Gear. The company could make a much better pitch for users if the watch lasted three to five days. It's almost too much to hope for much beyond that, at least as long as Samsung uses energy-sucking OLED screens.
But when a typical watch lasts, well, years, it's a bit of a change to charge your smartwatch daily.
Tweak the hardware: A smartwatch is more of a fashion statement than a smartphone, tablet, or most other mobile devices. Gear isn't exactly an ugly brick that users wear around their wrists, but it's also not a high-end Rolex. What Samsung needs to do is make the Gear design a little sleeker and sexier. As CNET has reported before, Samsung plans to release a new Gear smartwatch in early 2014 that does just that.
A more independent Gear: Samsung's smartwatch falls into an interesting place in the gadget market. It doesn't have the full functionality of a smartphone, but it's still smarter than a fitness tracker like the Nike Fuelband.
As it is now, Gear is essentially useless without a smartphone or tablet. Its biggest use is serving as a notification system for all those texts, voice mails, and other messages you receive on your phone. In the US, you even have to go to your smartphone to actually read the e-mails you receive. (An update could come as soon as this week to fix that, Samsung confirmed to CNET.)
One way Samsung could boost Gear's market is by giving the device even more smarts. Let it do things like check e-mail or play music even if you've forgotten your phone at home. That would require more memory and better components on Gear itself, but then the smartwatch could be positioned as a standalone device instead of a companion product for a smartphone.
Expand the line: If there's one thing Samsung does well, it's releasing dozens of variations of mobile devices to appeal to all consumer tastes. For its flagship Galaxy S4, Samsung also introduced versions that are more durable, take better photos, and cost less. It could easily do the same for wearables.
Just imagine a whole line of smartwatches. There can be versions specifically for women that look more like jewelry (those big-honking smartwatches look pretty silly on smaller wrists). There could be versions that are completely waterproof and include compasses and other rugged, outdoorsy features. And it could make simple versions that do little besides provide notifications or measure physical activity, like the Nike FuelBand.
Samsung could also introduce glasses and other wearable devices we haven't dreamed up yet, maybe even "smart clothing." (Samsung's parent company does have clothing businesses, as you can read about here.)
Still, even with the changes, there's no guarantee anyone will buy the smartwatch.
But one thing is for sure: Samsung isn't giving up. We're eagerly awaiting version 2.0, and 3.0, and beyond.
What would you like to see from Galaxy Gear? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.