Smartwatches: How long until you need one?

We look at the early smartwatch attempts to try and work out how long it will be before you really need one...

Incoming heavyweights

Apple and Google are the household names which have yet to make an impact in the smartwatch market.

Google has confirmed its Android Wear devices will ship in the summer. Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung are all onboard. The Moto 360 looks like one of the most intriguing devices, featuring a revamped interface specifically for smartwatches. It also has a classic look and feel of a watch, something Gartner's McIntyre feels could give it the edge.

"The Moto 360 is a high-end device that has the potential to appeal to customers as its traditional look will be acceptable to end-users," Gartner's research director told us.

Meanwhile, Apple's been long rumoured to enter the wristwatch market. As usual the iPhone-maker has been secretive about its plans, but the hiring of the executive behind Nike's FuelBand device has all but confirmed the existence of the fabled iWatch.

Reports suggest the iWatch has gone through a troubled development process but it could ship with a full version of iOS, a flexible display and biometric capabilities.

"An Apple smartwatch would garner a lot of attention, but it's not guaranteed to catch on. Plus it would face the same challenges when it comes to features like interface and battery life," McIntyre continued.

Challenges

Experts agree manufacturers have a number of problems to overcome before smartwatches become essential purchases.

On the engineering front, challenges such as improving the interface, display, battery life and connectivity can be tackled with experimentation and the availability of flexible, smaller and more efficient components.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is changing the mindset of end users and convincing them they need a smartwatch in their life. Despite Samsung's attempts to promote voice interaction, people don't feel comfortable speaking into their wrist. It will be interesting to see how manufacturers overcome this issue. One possibility is the inclusion of a Bluetooth headset with devices.

Long-term future

Smartwatches are not a necessity at present, but they do have the potential to become more useful in three to five years. One of the key factors determining functionality is built-in connectivity.

Wireless connections are limited to Bluetooth at present because of size/cost restrictions and battery life implications. However, as it becomes more feasible to add Wi-Fi, 4G, GPS and NFC, the use cases for devices will multiply.

As we move towards a society where sensors are placed all around to create an "Internet of Things" (IoT), the need for devices like smartwatches will also grow. 

"Potential use-cases include the ability to unlock doors, start cars and control equipment like thermostats and stereos with your wearable device," McIntyre suggests.

Such high-end functionality options will result in added security concerns too though.

Then we have the price. Both Dillon and McIntyre agree the sweet spot for pricing lies between $100 - $200. This appears to reflect the real-world demand with the basic Pebble, which has already proved popular, starting at $150.

Whether this price point can be sustained when functionality changes remains another matter.

With manufacturers still experimenting with design and functionality, it's hard to recommend a smarwatch as an essential purchase at present. Apple and Google's entry into the market is likely to speed up the rate of innovation, but realistically things are unlikely to get interesting until 2015 and beyond.

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