Today, in news that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, Samsung announced that it's making its own smartwatch. Bloomberg reports that Lee Young Hee, executive vice president of Samsung's mobile business, told interviewers in Seoul that the race for a wrist-mounted mini-computer is on like Donkey Kong.
"We've been preparing the watch product for so long," Lee said during an interview. "We are working very hard to get ready for it. We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them... The issue here is who will first commercialize it so consumers can use it meaningfully."
The last part of that statement refers to Apple, which announced earlier this year that it too was working on a "curved-glass" touchscreen smartwatch that may or may not be so dissimilar from a slap bracelet. (Here's everything we know about it.) Although Samsung didn't reveal details on features, pricing, or other information, it's reasonable to assume that a Galaxy S Watch wouldn't be all that different from Apple's rumored rig — a touchscreen, gyroscopes, apps. Maybe some sort of connection with your primary smartphone. Perhaps both watches will even tell time.
Indeed, tech's two biggest phone-makers see your wrist as fertile new territory on which to stake their pixelated flags. The smartphone market, on the other hand, has started to plateau and it's becoming harder and harder to get excited about them, since most of the time we know what we're getting.
But wearable computing — Google Glass included — is ostensibly the future (for better or worse). A two-way wristwatch has been a technology trope ever since Dick Tracy held one up to his face in 1946. The gadget-obsessed have long wanted one. The Pebble proved that. For Samsung and Apple, though, the real question is the masses: Would your mom wear one?
I'm not so sure. Samsung, after all, has been making computerized watches for well over a decade. (Really.) As TechCrunch points out, the SPH-WP10 watchphone — the comically bulky thing pictured below — shipped all the way back in 1999. And as recently as 2009, a smartphone-shaped watch (the S9110) was sold in stores.
Yet no one cared.
Then there's the fact that more than a few tech bloggers — typically a forward-thinking bunch — don't really like what they're seeing. Gizmodo's Sam Biddle wrote that Apple's watch would have to be pretty spectacular to overcome its latent ostentation: "It has to be something that jibes with real life — and our real bodies — more than any analyst's gravy train or fanboy futurist's wet dream... it has to be something that doesn't make us want to hide when we're in public."
Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at ZDNet also thinks wrist-mounted devices may be misguided: "The fantasy of wrist-top computers has been around for as long as I can remember... but so far no one has managed to take a device and make it mass market. People just don't seem to want to replace a wristwatch with a computer." (He concedes, however, that if anyone could do it, it'd be Apple.)
In February, when the rumor mill first began to churn and details were sparse, I wrote that Apple's iWatch would probably be a hit. It very well may be. But what I wrote back then still holds true:
…devices like [Nike's] FuelBand have hit on something: People tend to like computers best when they don't look like computers. Ultimately, I think, that's what most consumers really want — something that doesn't get in the way.
The Big Three (Apple, Samsung, and Google) all would appreciate it very much if you would literally fasten one of their flashy, futuristic computers to your body. They want friends and strangers to come up to you to ask you questions about these devices before possibly purchasing one of their own. And that's great. That's how innovation works. But you can see why — for the majority of people who don't read tech blogs every day — the Big Three's vision of a hyper-connected future is still a place that's hard to get excited about.