The War For Your Wrist

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Fly Or Die: Nexus 5

The past decade has seen the consumer electronics war grow more furious and more personal: your living room is a battlefield, as are your desks and your pockets. Now, more than a year-and-a-half since the Pebble (née Allerta) team saw its e-Paper smartwatch concept shatter a $100,000 Kickstarter funding goal, gadget purveyors of all stripes are vying for a spot on your wrist.

As I write this, a Jawbone UP24 is lashed to one of my wrists (being mindful of all the steps I’m not taking) and a Pebble just buzzed on the other. We unabashed nerds have embraced the smartwatch age with open arms and open wallets, but what’s been going on since those heady days of mid-2012?

The Bubble Keeps Growing

The buzz around wearable second-screen tech has been enough to inspire players both small and massive to enter the fray. It used to be that you couldn’t check out the new projects on Kickstarter without basically tripping over scads of smartwatch concepts — some were neat, some seemed more than a little shady, but all of them were meant to capitalize on the notion that using our amazing pocket computers of the future didn’t make consuming information easy or frictionless enough. And of course, bigger players are itching to make their market on a growing market, too.

Don’t take this as a completely comprehensive list, but Pebble, Martian, Samsung, Sony, ZTE, Fitbit, Basis, Neptune, Metawatch, and Qualcomm are all companies that have either already let their smartwatches loose on the world, or have confirmed that they’re working on a smartwatch. Qualcomm is a particularly interesting example, too — it’s best known as a semiconductor maker, a chip slinger whose wares are obscured by shells of plastic and metal, but its new TOQ smartwatch is slowly making its way out to media outlets and average joe consumers in exchange for $350.

Meanwhile, LG, Dell, Apple, and Google (which, remember, is still very distinct from Motorola) are strongly rumored to have wrist-worn gadgets under development behind closed doors. That list features the world’s most prominent consumer electronics players, and it under represents all the upstart companies who think they can deliver their own gadgets faster and better than their lumbering rivals.

No One Has Cracked The Formula Yet

If smartwatches are going to be as disruptive as so many companies believe they will be, at least one of them is going to have to strike a chord with a wide consumer audience in a big way. But which combination of price, performance, and PR is going to make that happen?

In a Google Hangout with YouTube tech personality Marques Brownlee, Motorola Mobility CEO Dennis Woodside confirmed that it was working on a wrist-worn gadget of its very own (probably the purview of the new “world-class wearables design group” it’s been slowing putting together). What was more interesting than that tacit confirmation was Woodside’s candid — if clipped — exposition on the potential pitfalls that come with dramatically trying to augment what the concept of a watch entails.

“There’s clearly gonna be something that changes on your wrist, how it works and what exactly it is is something our teams are working on hard,” Woodside said. “Whatever it is, it has to compete with what works now.” He added later that the wearables team has been given a set of challenges to surmount, too: “We can’t have something fragile, we can’t have something that needs to be charged everyday. You’re going to have to have some functionality that’s just killer otherwise why spend the money on yet another product.”

If that last bit sounds a little “well, duh” you’re probably in good company. That said, the approaches that smartwatch makers have taken vary wildly. At one end of the spectrum you have watches like the Martian, which looks almost completely like a something your father would wear albeit with small text displays and the ability to heed voice commands. One the other end are devices like the hefty Neptune Pine which basically shrinks an entire smartphone down to the point where it (sort of) fits around a human arm. The rest of the pack hovers somewhere between those extremes, making for a smartwatch market that’s both crowded and tough for average consumers to grok.

Speaking of consumers…

People Don’t Seem To Be Going Crazy For Them

There’s also the little issue of how many people would actually want to own a smartwatch, an accessory that, at worst, mimics what your smartphone can already do and, at best, augments it substantially. What few sales figures announcements out there point to some slowish uptake though: Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky told us last month that the startup has sold over 190,000 of its smart watches, nearly 100,000 of which were sold after the Kickstarter campaign officially closed. That means they were moved through the Pebble website, and through AT&T and Best Buy Stores — they’re all good outlets to move units, but they all seem to have plenty of the units in stock now which could represent slackening demand after the initial rush.

And of course, there’s Samsung. After rumors that it had sold a scant 50,000 Galaxy Gears to users began to bubble up, Samsung publicly insisted that it shipped 800,000 to retailers. Of course shipping units to stores and selling units to end users are two entirely different beasts, so the actual number of people walking around town with Galaxy Gears on their wrists remains frustratingly vague. Bear in mind, those are two of the most prominent smartwatch players out there right now. At this point it seems all too possible that the number of smartwatches that get churned out could exceed the number of people who find any sort of value in them.