UPDATED: Samsung has officially announced the Galaxy Gear. While it looks better than the prototype, my initial analysis is still relevant.
Last year the rumors began that Apple was working on a wearable device, which the media started calling the "iWatch". Since then, nearly every major hardware company has claimed to be releasing one as well. Samsung, Microsoft, Google, and Sony all enthusiastically told or leaked to the press that they too were working on a smart watch. It all seemed like a knee-jerk response to a product Apple has never officially acknowledged. Even more foolish, everyone seems to think Apple is going to make a literal smart watch. A device and form factor that has continuously failed to catch on. Sony even released a smart watch last year that received little to no attention mainly because it didn't solve a problem.
Information on Samsung's first attempt at wearable computing, the Galaxy Gear have leaked before their official release Sept. 4th and it appears to be incredibly predictable. If the leaked image and specs are accurate Samsung basically made a small smartphone (kind of) for your wrist. Which, at first blush sound great but in practical use this vision of the future completely falls apart. In typical Samsung fashion they crammed everything they could squeeze inside this relatively large device. A 1.63 inch OLED (320x320) touch screen, single core processor 800 MHz, 1.9 Megapixel camera, a speaker, microphone, accelerometer, bluetooth 4.0 LE, and a partridge and a pear tree. To top it all off the device has only one day of battery life. Sigh.
Instead of asking what should the function of a wearable computer be and how can we best facilitate that, samsung made what seemed like a logical next step (to those without much vision), a smartphone for the wrist! I wrote about this before and I continue to believe the wearable device that will truly be a mainstream product will be:
- Unobtrusive and stylish
- Focus on a few narrow tasks that benefit from being on your wrist and perform them well
- Long battery life
- Probably won't resemble a tradition watch in any way.
Think more Nike Fuel Band and less Dick Tracy. The fundamental flaws of a large touch screen on your wrist is battery life, heat, it's appearance, and user interface.
I believe if any company is going to pull this off, Apple has the best shot. I'm basing that assumption on their prior history of recognizing the problems existing MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers and addressing them. Not to mention they've made a number of hires and acquisitions in the past year that seem to indicate they get it. The product needs to have a reason to exist and people have to want to wear it.
Looking at the success of Nike Fuel Bands (which Tim Cook wears), Fitbits and other fitness oriented devices is a good place to start. Including more sophisticated sensors like a heartbeat monitor, blood sugar reader, and integrating it with features in iOS 7 like notifications, iBeacons and security could create a compelling device.
Using any of these functions doesn't require a large, battery killing screen either. A thin, flexible LCD screen, possibly 128x640 pixels would perfectly fit iOS 7 sized notifications, small enough to be discreet but large enough to display glanceable information. A modified version of iOS could be used for simplified functionality using basic left and right swiping gestures, similar to how the Google Glass OS works.
I'll wait to see what Samsung shows off tomorrow before I claim the Galaxy gear a complete failure, but so far it appears to be exactly what we saw happen right before the iPad was announced. Companies hurrying out their ungainly, clunky tablet computers before Apple announced the iPad, trying to get a jump on them. Not realizing that their idea of how a tablet computer should look and function was completely off-base, and rooted in ideas from the past. Samsung still seems to not understand that removing features is as much a part of design as adding features.