What does a watch do? It's primary function is to tell the time. This should be the key metric as Samsung attempts to go head-to-head with Apple [AAPL] next month, so what will the Korean conglomerate learn from Cupertino's iWatch when Apple responds in 2014?
[ABOVE: A popular watch design: simple, elegant and with a clock face licensed by Apple.]
Style and substance
We wear watches. We like them to look nice. With the exception of the uber-geeks, no one in their right mind's about to stride through town with an iPod nano on their wrist -- that's just not stylish enough.
We want our watches to be beautiful to look at, we want them to be functional, we need them to exude as much distinctive style as we can afford. Whatever our opposite sex might be, we know many of them will take stock of this. We don't want to seem cheap, tacky, geekish or shoddy.
At its heart Samsung is an industrial conglomerate. It is open to question just how much design ability the company has to deploy: though you can rest assured its product designers will be determined to show they can compete after years in the courts over their 'design' of the original Galaxy range. Samsung's designers will want to show they might one day be capable of unique design.
Over at Apple, Jony Ive's team already has a reputation for design, and will be equally motivated by a desire to maintain that credibility, while also hoping to kick anything competitors might release to the curb.
Apple has been developing a smartwatch for years. As I reported here it has established strong ties with watch designers worldwide. It is possible the firm's been testing potential iWatch features within prototypes designed to look just like Nike+ bands, which Apple's seniors have frequently been spotted wearing in public. Are those things really Nike, or are they an iWatch in disguise?
[ABOVE: You too can look sexy with this.]
Samsung has been building watch phones for years -- the above video shows you something it created in 1998. This means the company has had time in which to develop the microelectronics to go inside a future device; hopefully with better aesthetics.
The design of the smartwatches we see emerge from both firms is likely to reflect the two company's corporate ethics. Apple designs experiences, while Samsung is focused on developing commodity devices. Which will you wear?
[ABOVE: Consumers are interested.]
It's all very well wearing a phone on your wrist, but you need excellent battery life, tons of features, good usability and all wrapped-up in something that looks good on your wrist.
I suspect but do not know that neither Samsung nor Apple will be able to introduce a device that hosts all the features of a smartphone; I believe it is more likely both will launch systems that interact with the smartphone in your pocket, presumably using Bluetooth.
This implies that the processor inside these watches will be relatively low-powered, that the devices won't make calls or send texts independently of the smartphone, and that music and other media will be streamed from the phone, which itself implies both devices will be low in storage.
Expandable storage (a micro-SD card, for example) also seems unlikely in these things, due to power demands and the space these things require. It also seems unlikely either device will boast WiFi -- the only way to get them online will be via the smartphone they are paired with, under this model.
This means both devices will be offered to a limited market. Apples iWatch will be aimed at existing iPhone and iPad owners while Samsung's contraption will target those of its customers using a compatible Android device. (This won't be available to the mass of Samsung device owners on account of this).
It is reasonable to expect Nike+/Fitbit type features in both watches, so you will be able to track distance travelled, calories burned, pulse and other health related features.
It is also reasonable to predict both devices will enable users to receive calls, send texts and emails and set calendar notifications so long as they are also carrying a phone that's connected to a network. And it would be utterly foolish for either company to neglect to ensure all Notifications that might appear on the smartphone will also appear on the smartwatch.
App support may figure, but those apps that are made available to either device will be feature limited and made in-house, given the absence of a smartwatch SDK at this time.
This means Apple is likely to prevail when it comes to what its device is capable of because it controls both the hardware and the software inside the gadget.
[ABOVE: Thanks to Patently Apple, here's an iWatch UI idea. The user interface means a lot in a device this small.]
How you use it
The only way I can imagine in which either company can best its rival when it comes to smartwatch features is if either antagonist has managed to design a smartwatch that also supports 4G/LTE, WiFi and voice calls without offering deeply limited battery life. This seems technologically unlikely right now, though it is reasonable to anticipate both sides are working toward that goal.
Such a device would enjoy many of the advantages of a smartphone, albeit within the limitations of its form factor. An always-connected smartwatch would then require a new user interface custom-designed for that product.
Apple's control of the hardware and software in its device means it will be in position to deliver a more integrated user experience -- assuming its product and software teams make the right decisions.
Apple's wide experience of building widely adopted user interfaces will also lend the firm significant advantage when it comes to how its customers use these things.
Summing up, Samsung and Apple seem likely to introduce fairly similar 'smartphone companion' devices. The two firms both have strengths and weaknesses in this field, but aesthetic design, features, battery life and usability will be critical to the success of these things.
I suspect Samsung will gain the first to market advantage with its product, but anticipate weak aesthetic design, a limited set of features and a compromised user interface will offer little challenge for Apple as it moves to introduce iWatch, potentially in 2014.
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