Prepare For The Smartwatch Assault

Consumer electronic companies are giddy. They can’t help themselves. They have a new thing. A new gadget. A new widget to sell to you. After years of notebooks, tablets and boring slabs of metal and glass, Samsung, LG, Motorola and all the rest finally have a chance to build something different: The smartwatch. This is going to be a mess.

The smartwatches will come hard and fast. Companies will release iterations at breakneck speed as the engineers and marketers receive feedback from consumers. The giant companies have the reserves to do this. Startups, like Pebble, have one shot to get it right.

Samsung was first out of the gate with the Galaxy Gear. Released just last September, the company quickly followed it up with three more models in April. And then another smartwatch three months later. And now, just yesterday, the company announced another smartwatch, the successor to the original Galaxy Gear Smartwatch.

LG is also following suit and just announced its second smartwatch for 2014. Apparently the company heard the resounding feedback that consumers want a round-faced smartwatch. Motorola stole the limelight away from LG when the two companies jointly helped Google announce Android Wear. The LG G Watch has a square face and the Motorola 360 circular. All the attention went to the 360’s sexy round LCD and so LG wanted in on the action. The action hasn’t been this exciting since the great netbook craze of 2009.

The smartwatch market is reminiscent of the early days of feature phones when cell phone makers were releasing new models seemingly every quarter. At the time Nokia was churning out models that ranged from the mundane to the absurd while others like Sony Ericsson was experimenting with full touchscreens phones and tiny handsets. It was a wild time that led us to the thin RAZR, full-featured SE P900, and the taco-talking N-Gage.

Startups do not have the same deep pockets as consumer electronic giants. Their minimum viable product needs to be right on the money — or, at the very least, built upon a platform that can be upgraded quickly. Startups will lose the hardware battle. For the most part, they do not have the cash to invest into round LEDs, inclusive communication chipsets or exotic materials.

Look at Pebble. The startup luckily got out in front of the giants and courted developers and enthusiasts to its rather simple platform. Compared to the latest smartwatches, the Pebble looks like a Nokia 3310 sitting next to an iPhone. Yet it’s the one I would buy at this point in the game because they’ve proven that they can deliver a solid experience for not very much money.

Startups should look at Pebble and follow its lead rather than trying to compete with Samsung or LG on building the best looking hardware. It’s the experience that matters, and the Pebble, with its countless apps, user forums, and rich developer community, is currently the best that’s available. Plus the Pebble Steel is a handsome smartwatch even though it doesn’t have a round faux analog face.

Hopefully Pebble doesn’t get buried under a pile of discontinued smartwatches.

At this point consumer electronic companies are new to the smartwatch game and do not know what consumers want. Hell, consumers do not know what they want out of a smartwatch yet either. And that’s the trick for Apple. Jony Ive and teams are faced with an impossible task. The industry, consumers, and investors expect Apple to get the smartwatch right the first time. Meanwhile Samsung, LG and the rest will be constantly rolling out new models, getting things wrong, and trying again and again. I can’t tell which strategy is best but I do know these are going to be some confusing times in the smartwatch world.