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Top vendors like Google, Apple hope to take smartwatches mainstream in 2014

Smartwatch developers must focus on cutting prices, adding more apps, and improving the look to attract broad consumer interest

When International CES opens in Las Vegas in early January, a flood of wearable computing devices, including smartwatches, will be on display.

The fledgling smartwatch market is tiny compared to that for smartphones, or even wearable devices like Google Glass or smart bands that cater to fitness and health-monitoring needs.

Galaxy Gear
The Galaxy Gear smartwatch from Samsung.

Still, the smartwatch phenomenon promises to blossom in 2014 as experts expect Google to launch a model by summer followed by Apple sometime in the fall. Even Microsoft is reportedly working on one.

To achieve any degree of greatness, though, these major tech innovators and their smaller competitors must overcome some significant hurdles.

For instance, most of the smartwatches unveiled to date are too expensive, at $200 to $300 each, for widespread adoption. Most of the devices also require a connection to a smartphone via Bluetooth, which implies that users face the added cost of the smartphone and a wireless service contract.

The early smartwatches also lack functionality and mostly run fewer than 20 smartwatch apps.

Several analysts say the so-called value proposition of smartwatches is unclear so far. Sure, you can check your smartwatch for a text message or email or use it to find the time or a weather forecast without having to dig into a pocket or purse to find your smartphone. But is that enough to attract users to the technology?

Some smartwatches (sometimes called smart bands) include sensors that let them double as fitness monitors, which helps expand their functionality to a degree. A few also have cameras, microphones and speakers.

Beyond those basic price and functionality hurdles, some of the early smartwatches are just plain ugly and far too large (mostly around 2-in. x 1.5-in.) for women to wear on their wrists, say several analysts familiar with the market.

That problem suggests the successful smartwatch innovators will -- or should -- pair up with fashion designers.

"Fashion will be important, whether in smartwatches or Google Glass," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester. "Vendors need to up their game on design. They should partner with jewelry and clothing vendors. Tech firms just aren't equipped to deal with fashion by themselves."

Gartner analyst Angela McIntyre said that most of today's smartwatches are too large and dull looking.

"When I put many of them on, they are wider than my wrist is, and I'm not that small," she said. "These are meant for males to wear, so they are missing half the market right there."

"One of the most difficult issues is the smartwatch face -- it's a black box. If they'd make them look like conventional watches, that would help. Yes, I'd like more sparkle, and there are some designs for making them look like regular watches. These devices need more of a value proposition that people will understand and want," she added.

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