With the announcement of the Apple Watch in September of 2014, enthusiasm for the already buzzed-about field of smartwatches took on a new level of intensity. No tech company has proved more capable of capturing the public interest than has Apple, and its arrival in the wearable tech market lends new legitimacy to the field. The new Apple watch will be available in early 2015—no specific date has been set—but the market is already thick with offerings from the major tech companies, with new and updated versions set to arrive over the next year.
Referring to a smartwatch as a “watch” is at best a reference to design and body position. Most smartwatches, Apple Watch included, are small computers intended to serve primarily as an extension of a user’s smartphone. Smartwatches can do a few things on their own, such as fitness tracking, but paired use with a smartphone is the main purpose of most models. Apple Watch’s functionality without a paired phone, for example, is mostly limited to fitness and activity-tracking apps, playing already-downloaded music, and making payments with the forthcoming Apple Pay. Many rival models are even more limited without smartphone pairing.
Pairing with smartphones for both Apple and Android-based smartwatches will for the most part be done via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (when it is available). Paired functionality will operate only as long as you remain within Bluetooth range (around 30 feet or less for most phones) of your smartphone, or within the same wireless network. Although there are some prototype watches under development that will have internal cellular capabilities, developers (including Apple) have for the most part rejected its inclusion in their models. Most prototypes with cellular modems so far have been from start-ups. Samsung is the only major company outlier here. It formed an early partnership with telecom companies and is including a 3g modem in its Samsung Galaxy Gear S smartwatch. Time will tell if this addition proves popular and works its way into other brands. Widespread adoption shouldn’t be counted out; a “standalone” smartwatch with cellular capability would be able to generate its own Internet access and receive calls directly—potentially a powerful draw for users. On the con side, it both increases the cost of the devices and would likely involve related monthly or usage charges by cellular companies. Increased battery usage is a major hardware concern.
So what will be the market for the smartwatch? For the time being it will be a pure luxury item—no one actually needs a smartwatch in the way they need a smartphone. Early adopters will likely be those who enjoy surfing at the front of the personal tech wave, as well as those who anticipate benefits from the ability to check message and emails without pulling their phone from their pocket. Those interested in fitness and health tracking are also likely to be early fans of the technology.
DESIGN AND STYLE
Wearable technology adds a component that has not traditionally been important for new gadgets – style. Everyone wants their smartphone to look, well, smart—but portability and features have been the primary concern in phone design so far. With the introduction of smartwatches, tech integration with personal style becomes incredibly important.
Apple has taken an early lead in this dimension—even though its product is not released yet—by providing a much wider range of options for both band and housing than its competitors have so far managed. Given Apple’s much-lauded emphasis on pleasing design over the years in computers and phones, this is no surprise. The Moto 360 also offers multiple faces and has been praised for its look.
ANDROID WEAR VS. APPLE WATCH
Because smartwatches are primarily extensions of phones, the field of smartwatch operating systems is predictably beginning to mimic the Apple/Android divide in smartphones. Just as Google and Apple have captured most of the smartphone (operating system) market between their Android and iOS platforms, those same platforms seem to be closing in on dominance of smartwatches. Most of the major brands of smartwatch currently available have adopted Android Wear, Google’s “wearable” version of the Android Operating system. Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and Asus have all been announced as Android Wear partners. And if the Apple Watch is as popular as predicted, many users will soon be running Watch OS on their wrists, Apple’s wearable version of iOS.
Major smartphone and web apps are now adopting Android Wear in increasing numbers—I Heart Radio recently announced an Android Wear version for upcoming release. The popular note-taking and document-reference app Evernote is already available for Android Wear.
Apple’s Watch OS and will feature many of the same apps, such as Siri, messages, and maps, that users are familiar with using on iPhones, and will likely continue to see strong app development.
The only major operating system challenge to Android Wear (for non-Apple phones) is the Tizen system, an open-source operating system that has been adopted by Samsung for its flagship models. Samsung and Tizen have been closely linked and there have been a number of failed product launches and missed deadlines related to Tizen, but the company has continued to use the operating system despite it being declared dead by many industry analysts.
Wearable tech of any kind is likely to increase debates about the level of distraction—and resulting safety problems—that new technologies can cause. The UK’s Department of Transport, for example, has already confirmed that the use of smartwatches while driving will be subject to the same restrictions and penalties that are currently levied for phone use while driving, which can be somewhat severe. Surprisingly, some have argued that use of a smartwatch might help reduce the effects of technology addiction by allowing a user to check and dismiss text messages or emails without having to dive fully into the addictive information minefield that offered by a smartphone every time.
Additionally, as with cellphones, wearable tech advances concerns about privacy with additional movement and tracking apps. Although most people are already familiar with the privacy risks assumed by carrying an always-on cellphone, the addition of smartwatches to the mix provide companies (and, theoretically, government entities) with new avenues for personal data mining.
Apple’s decision to have the Apple Watch only work with Iphones 5 and newer continues a long-standing company model of restricting compatibility to its own brands. It has worked well for Apple in the past, but it may encourage users that currently own Android phones to forgo the Apple Watch and seek out competitors.
There are far too many smartwatch options on the market now (or with planned release in the next six months) to provide a detailed rundown of each. Below we briefly describe the Apple Watch and some of its top competitors.
The Apple Watch is by far the most anticipated of the models on their way to the market. The entry of Apple into the smartwatch game is expected to provide a major indicator of how interested the public will prove to be in wearable technology. Apple is offering a number of different physical styles of the device to accommodate personal taste, and there will be two options for watch face size. It will run the Watch OS operating system designed by Apple and offers many versions of apps that can be found on the iPhone. It can access a phone’s pictures, has a speaker/walkie-talkie functionality, Siri, and an accelerator and gyroscope, among other features. It can also serve as a remote for Apple TV and other connected Apple smart devices. Apple Pay will be a key draw for the new device if major retailers adopt the payment system. The Apple Watch will emphasize health and fitness tracking in particular. Apple is making the watch available to app developers before it is released, so we can expect robust options for users when it hits the market.
Sony Smartwatch 3 (not released yet):
Running Android Wear like many of its competitors, this is one of the few major brand models with built-in GPS. This will give it better fitness and navigation tracking functionality without being paired to a smartphone, though pairing is still the key function. A top choice for those interested in fitness and health apps.
Samsung’s Gear S:
The Gear S is the newest watch in Samsung’s Gear line and the rare model that offers built-in 3g functionality. It’s not designed to be a replacement for a smartphone, but it is definitely offers the most independent functionality of the models mentioned here. The Tizen operating system means that Android apps will not be compatible—potentially a major limitation in competition with an already crowded market.
LG G Watch R:
LG’s latest entry into the smartwatch game has an always-on display, uses Android Wear, and allows voice commands. Looks most like a traditional watch, leaving behind earlier square versions of the LG G watches that looked more like computer faces.
Motorola’s main smartwatch entry uses Android Wear, offers several different watch faces, and allows voice commands. The Guardian judged it to have poor battery life but praised it for being the best looking, most comfortable smartwatch.
The Pebble stands out from the other major smartwatch competitors and deserves special mention here. It uses an e-ink screen instead of a touch screen; a sacrifice that does not allow touch functionality but that gives the Pebble a seven-day battery life, vastly exceeding other models on the market. It is also the only watch among the main competitors (so far) that can be synced to either Android or IOS devices. It serves mainly to receive notifications from a user’s smartphone, though it does support some third-party apps. Additionally, the Pebble was developed independently and funded by a Kickstarter-funded campaign, quite a different path from its major tech-company developed competitors.
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Wearable Technologies Group on the Apple Watch: http://www.wearable-technologies.com/2014/09/apple-watch-a-new-era-of-wearable-computing/
CNET Apple Watch: http://www.cnet.com/products/apple-watch/
The Guardian’s Smartwatch Roundup: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/11/best-smartwatches-apple-watch-motorola-moto-360-google-android
The Android Wear OS: http://www.android.com/intl/en_us/wear/
The Apple Watch launch page: http://www.apple.com/watch/overview/