A history of the smart watch and why nobody wants one

Samsung is about to experience the same subdued response to its Galaxy Gear as others who have come before…

Nobody wants a smart watch. The problem is simple — the smart watch is a product for its own sake. It hasn’t been imagined from a customer perspective, but rather conjured up purely from commercial intent. Until someone truly redefines the category, as Apple did with smart phones, the smart watch will be relegated to the wrists of over eager geeks who will, let’s be honest, try out anything new. This is still a category up for grabs.

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear takes a product that has been around since the 80s and adds some acquired hype to the announcement with little in the way of new features that anybody needs. The manufacturer will celebrate features like a camera, while customers will respond with the obvious shortcomings — a battery that barely lasts a day, for example. How could this thing practically fit into your life? It doesn’t.

The Galaxy Gear isn’t much different from previous attempts at dominating the wrist. Here are some smart watches from the last three decades;

Seiko Epson RC-20

The Seiko Epson Rc-20, 1985

The RC-20 was released in 1985. It sported a Z-80 processor and a whopping 2K of RAM. Features included a touchscreen LCD display and apps for scheduling, memos and a calculator. You could also connect the RC-20 to a PC and load your own programs — if you could fit them onto the 8K of storage.

Fossil Abacus Wrist PDA

Fossil’s Wrist PDA, 1999

Watch manufacturer Fossil saw the future in 1999 and wasn’t going to be left behind. It licensed the Palm OS — which was also a precursor to modern smartphone operating systems — and shoehorned it into a watch form factor. The device could synchronize information with a PC, had a touchscreen and even supported the Graffiti handwriting input.

LG GD910

The LG GD910, 2009

LG has had several smart watch models, including some watch phones. One recent attempt came in 2009 with the GD910 that features a 1.3" touch screen, 3G connectivity, video calling and voice recognition software. The GD910 also offers improved aesthetics whereas smart watches before it were just nasty.


Pebble, 2013

The Pebble is one of the smarter smart watches to date in that it beats the battery problem with an E Ink display. It essentially functions as a remote for your smartphone when it’s not telling the time or alerting you to notifications. It has the added street cred of being enabled by Kickstarter in one of the most successful crowd funding stories to date.

Sony SmartWatch

Sony SmartWatch, 2013

Sony has made the most decisive moves into the tiny smart watch arena of late with its product that beat Samsung to market by a considerable margin. The SmartWatch has email, SMS and other notifications with the ability to control some things on Android smartphones and a range of plugins on the Google Play store.

All of these devices tried to spark a market for wrist computers without much success. It wasn’t that they were too far ahead of the curve, but rather that they failed to create a definitive category of device — instead just awkwardly lending features that were better expressed by other forms of personal computers.

I believe Kevin Rose summed it up succinctly in his tweets following the Samsung Galaxy Gear announcement;

Nobody wants a smart watch — at least not in their current form. Hell, nobody wants a watch to begin with. Apple might change that by redefining the category, as it has with others in the past. Or perhaps it just executed the most brilliant decoy in recent corporate history by sending Samsung on a wild goose chase.

So what would a category-redefining smart watch look like? Firstly, it would offer something that clearly makes life better for customers who own one. I suspect it would also have to accommodate some key features:

  • A battery that lasts longer than three days.
  • Class. Let’s face it, the current lineup of smart watches hardly make a fashion statement.
  • Activity tracking along the lines of what Nike, FitBit and Jawbone offer with their products.
  • Autonomy; the ability to use it without constantly tethering to a phone.
  • Simplicity. Something that both young kids and their grandparents would want to play around with.

In short — a lot of things the Galaxy Gear doesn’t offer.