Notions is a weekly column that delves into what did, what should, what could, or what needs to happen in the world of technology and pop culture.
In 1973, Seiko released the first watch with a six-digit LCD, the 06LC (pictured above), jump-starting the era of digital watches. The first digital electronic watch was the Hamilton Pulsar P1, developed in 1972, but it was too expensive at $2,100, and much too power-hungry to be anything more than a harbinger. The 1980s were the golden years for digital watches, and watchmakers attempts to differentiate themselves from one another resulted in watches with seemingly outlandish features. Casio popularized the calculator watch in 1980 with the C-80; Seiko created a digital watch with a blue and gray LCD that came with an external TV tuner in 1982; the same year, a Casio digital watch came with a thermometer; in 1987 Citizen built a watch that reacted to your voice. While not experiencing the same success as in previous decades, the digital watch market finds itself in a reasonable position, still quite popular in the lower-end watch market.
Last week, Samsung unveiled its latest creation, the Galaxy Gear, a watch with a 1.63-inch AMOLED touchscreen, a 1.9MP camera on the band, a speaker, and two microphones, allowing you to make and receive calls if you’re connected to one of Samsung’s new tablet or smartphones. The Galaxy Gear is being called the first shot fired in the newest tech arms race, this time to lead the “smartwatch” market. I don’t believe this is the case. From everything I’ve seen, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is the latest iteration of the digital watch, still a “dumb” device, and has not yet crossed the barrier into the still untapped smartwatch category.
The Galaxy Gear reminds me of two devices that were expected to lead, but instead directly preceded an industry shift: the Super Audio CD, created in 1999, right before MP3s became popular, and the CRT HDTV, which met a quick demise in 2007 as flat-panel HDTVs rapidly decreased in price. In their scurry to get a head start in a fresh market, the gun was jumped by a few companies whose products were rapidly rebuffed as the true industry leaders revealed themselves shortly after. Samsung, in its rush to beat Apple and Google to the smartwatch punch, have done themselves in by releasing a device that cannot truly operate on its own.
To fully utilize the Galaxy Gear, you must have a compatible Samsung device, currently the Galaxy Note 3 ($299 with a two-year contract), or the Galaxy Tab 10.1 2014 Edition (yes, that is its full name). Samsung has stated that software updates for the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S III, and Galaxy Note II are on the way. Without being connected to one of these five devices, the Galaxy Gear is rendered useless. The 70 apps that Samsung touted will be available at launch must be downloaded from the Galaxy Gear Manager app on one of the five aforementioned devices, and Galaxy Gear apps like Pocket shown off at the Samsung presentation rely on having the same app installed on your phone or tablet. There is no built-in GPS. It doesn’t have wifi. Even native apps like S Voice won’t work without being connected to a device. The same is true for notifications. According to Samsung, the battery in the Galaxy Gear lasts “about a day,” which most likely means less than that during real usage. Samsung’s attempt to be the physical manifestation of the ever-present online comment of “first” has made the Galaxy Gear essentially the digital watch 2.0, not the leader of the first generation of smartwatches. While Samsung’s implementation may have been severely flawed, their desire to be trendsetters should be commended.
For the last thirteen years, when it comes to tech hardware Apple has set the tempo that everyone has followed. From the iPod to the iPhone, to the Macbook Air, and the iPad, Apple has pushed the industry forward while positioning itself the gold standard of hardware design. Google has also stepped into the hardware business recently, sometimes in partnership with other companies via its Nexus line, which has helped shape the design language for the current iteration of Android devices, or by creating an entirely new product line on its own, like Google Glass.
With reports of smartwatches coming out of both Cupertino and Mountain View, it will be one of these two tech titans that will deliver the first true smartwatch. If recent history is any indication, it appears the rest of the industry will have to sit back and wait until they are good and ready to show them off.