So What Can a Smartwatch Do?

Yesterday, Samsung fired what some are calling the “first shot in the smartwatch wars” with the Galaxy Gear.

Samsung calls it a device that will keep us “constantly connected.” (As if we needed something else.) For those in the industry still getting their heads around the smartwatch concept, it is worth looking at just what these new devices will be capable of.

From what we know, here is what the Galaxy Gear can do:

– It’ll be a Dick Tracy-like phone on your wrist:

When users get a phone call, they can raise their hand to their ear like they’re holding a smartphone. The speakers and microphones seem to appear on the watch band, too. “We don’t need to talk in the air like those Google headsets,” notes [Samsung executive Pranav] Mistry. (Sure, since talking to a hand holding an imaginary phone is better.)

The Samsung press release includes this practical application: “A user leaving the grocery store, whose hands are full with shopping bags, could still make a call by speaking into the GALAXY Gear without touching the screen.”

– You can check and send emails with it, by voice command. You can instant message, too.

– It will include some sport watch functionality, such as a gyroscope and accelerometer to track your movements. 

– It will tell you the news, the weather, and help you with directions. 

– It will have a camera. Want to take a photo or record video of something? Just point your arm at it.

– There’s a safety assistance feature. In case of an emergency, you can press a power button three times, and your location information will be transferred to your contacts with a message.

– You can record voice memos on it.

– And of course, there will be apps. Ultimately what these devices can do will be limited only by the physical world, human imagination, and what there’s a market for. Among the more creative early apps is one that will let you hear the text of any articles you have saved on your phone. Another—the Vivino Wine Scanner—lets you take a photo of any wine and retrieve information about it. And eBay just released one that will let users track their purchases.

– And, on top of all that, it will even tell time. (How about that?) There’s a stopwatch and timer, too.

For now, most of its uses make it kind of an adjunct to the smartphone; for instance, one app lets you control the music that is played on other Samsung devices. So at this point, it doesn’t really stand on its own. But it is possible that, with further refinement and ingenuity, a smartwatch will act as a smartphone on your wrist—which is striking, considering a smartphone is essentially a computer in your pocket. 

Despite all this, it is not clear the Galaxy Gear will be a slam-dunk. This particular device costs 300 bucks and will need to be constantly charged. And you can argue, as former JCK-er Joe Thompson does here, it isn’t much of a fashion statement.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at these devices as individual entities, but thinking about the overall smartwatch category. The Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council has predicted that while smartwatches will hurt the business in the short run, they could refresh the category overall.

And the category certainly needs it. According to Business Insider, a slim majority—about 55 percent—of consumers globally still wear watches. But that is falling off among younger buyers. No less than Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that, when he thinks about at the smartwatch category, the problem isn’t the “smart” aspect, but the watches:

“For something to work here you have to convince people it’s so incredible, that they want to wear it.… If we had a room full of 10 to 20-year-olds and we said, ‘Everyone stand up that has a watch,’ I’m not sure anybody would stand up.”

(Nevertheless, Apple is widely said to be developing a smartwatch. Google even bought a smartwatch company last month.) 

So this could bring watches to the forefront of consumer consciousness in a way they haven’t been in a long time. Still, it may come at a cost. The best-known watch brand may soon not be Rolex, but Apple.

Clearly, some in the watch field could live without the tech hordes invading their business. But they are coming—possibly for good. This will be interesting. 

JCK News Director