Gears of Bore: Why Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch looks like a dud

Rob Walker
Yahoo News

The most suspenseful subplot of today’s Samsung dog-and-pony show turned on the unveiling of its “smartwatch,” the Galaxy Gear, which is scheduled for a September 25 release. Smartwatches aren’t new, but it’s a very buzzy category with no dominant player, and Samsung is beating some scary rivals to market: Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all been rumored to be working on similar products.

Here was a chance, then, for Samsung to decisively shake the copycat tinge that lingers from its legal and PR battles with Apple, and introduce a product that’s a true catalyst for the mainstream embrace of a wearable-technology niche — its own “iPod moment.”

I don’t think we saw that today. Partly because of the context, and partly because of the Galaxy Gear itself.

Let’s start with the gizmo. The physical design of the Galaxy Gear is tighter and cleaner than the appearance suggested in purported leak pictures. But while Samsung is chronologically out in front of some major potential competitors, there are already smartwatches from Sony and a variety of upstarts such as Pebble — and the Gear looks a lot like what’s already out there: It isn't tearing down any aesthetic walls that would have prevented smartwatch purchases in the past.

And the truth is, if you benchmark any of these sleek-but blocky-and-bulky objects against, say, a really beautiful wristwatch, they all still look pretty much look like sci-fi movie props.

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Samsung’s lead-off honcho called the Gear “a new fashion item,” but that’s not only a stretch, it’s a terrible way to frame the payoff of owning a smartwatch. A successful smartwatch needs to project an air of “I am wearing the future!” and not an air of “I am willing to endure an unfathomable number of Dick Tracy jokes.”

Sure, people are buying and wearing those devices, but not in the multimillion numbers some analysts predict smartwatches can achieve. So far, smartwatches are about conspicuous wearable technology: People who wear them want you to notice them, and ask about them. That’s fine, but for most people what happens next is going to be more about function than fashion: If the answer is “I can check email on my wrist” then most of us are going to translate that into an idea closer to “showy jewelry” than “useful tool.”

The utility answer needs to be something that sounds both previously impossible and broadly appealing — like 1,000 songs in your pocket sounded, once upon a time.

I didn’t hear anything close to a meaningful purpose or killer feature from Samsung today. The hardware is configured so that if you receive a call, you can just lift your hand to your hand to your ear and start talking, which would actually look pretty weird. I guess it saves you whatever time it would have to taken to pull out your phone? The Galaxy Gear also presents an even easier way to take sneaky pictures. And it runs a variety of apps — although the presentation was pretty light on details, that presumably could be handy for various fitness tracking and other quantified self uses.

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But there was no single function that suggested a mind-blowing new thing unto itself. And to a surprising degree, the Gear was basically presented as an accessory to your phone — specifically, your Samsung Note. It’s a gizmo for your gizmo.

In fairness to Samsung, the other half of the problem is that the whole smartwatch category seems drastically over-hyped. The iPod didn’t launch into the face of wild expectations about the potential market for MP3 players, which seemed like a fairly niche category back in 2001. And it took a year or two for it to become clear that the product was not only a mass success, but a centerpiece of an even bigger shift in the business of music and, ultimately, entertainment in general.

In contrast, aggressive predictions about the wearable-computing future are numbingly familiar — could be a $50 billion industry in less than five years, some say! And with Apple and Google both apparently preparing a competitor, the pressure was on for Samsung. So it could turn out that Samsung has done little more than show its hand, leaving room for an “iPod moment” for one of its rivals — possibly even Apple itself, if the endless rumors are true.

The iPod’s combination of form, function, and extremely aggressive marketing made a lot of people consider the whole idea of owning an MP3 player for the first time. When they looked at the iPod, they just got it: A thousand songs in your pocket really is different than a thousand songs on a slew of CDs on a shelf in your living room. A breakthrough smartwatch is going to need to make it similarly obvious why a smartphone on your wrist is really different from a smartphone in your pocket. From what we saw today, the Galaxy Gear seems unlikely to do that.