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Smartwatches are ready, but are consumers?

Samsung watch offers chips and networking, but it’s not yet clear consumers will bite

When Samsung Corp. unveils its newest consumer product in Berlin on Wednesday, this gadget won’t slip into a shirt pocket like the South Korean electronics giant’s hugely successful Galaxy smartphones.

This time, Samsung is aiming for our wrists.

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The Galaxy Gear is a smartwatch, the latest in a wave of new devices that add microprocessors and wireless networking to the traditional wrist-mounted timepiece.

Samsung doesn’t have the market to itself; a host of companies, including Japan’s Sony Corp., are already in the smartwatch business. Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are both rumored to be developing such watches. And a number of start-up companies with names like Pebble and I’m Watch have released their own offerings.

The looming debut of the Samsung watch has rekindled debate over whether the public is ready for so-called wearable computing — devices that are attached to the body like jewelry or articles of clothing — and, if so, which form will catch on first: smartwatches or, for example, Google Glass, a computer integrated into a set of eyeglasses.

“It was a market waiting for a killer application,” said Nitin Bhas, senior analyst at the British technology research firm Juniper Research. “When a player like Apple and Samsung gets into the market, suddenly everything changes. Those are big players. They’re well positioned to educate the customer.”

Bhas predicts makers of smartwatches like the Galaxy Gear will sell about 1 million units worldwide this year, and 36 million by 2018. That’s small in comparison to sales of smartphones; Bhas concedes that even if they’re reasonably successful, smartwatches will remain a niche market for years to come.

There’s nothing new about the idea of smartwatches. Primitive computerized timepieces have been around since the 1980s. But their bulky styling and limited features doomed them with consumers. In 2003, Microsoft Corp. introduced SPOT, a hefty digital watch that could display news headlines and weather reports via a wireless data receiver. The public wasn’t buying; SPOT was discontinued in 2008.

A smartwatch made by Sonostar, a Taiwanese company, was displayed at the Computex trade fair in Taipei in June.

MANDY CHENG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A smartwatch made by Sonostar, a Taiwanese company, was displayed at the Computex trade fair in Taipei in June.

But people may be warming to the concept. Sony’s SmartWatch, introduced last year, has sold about 200,000 units, said Joshua Flood, an analyst at ABI Research in London. In June, Sony introduced an upgraded version.

While Samsung has confirmed its smartwatch plans, the company has provided no details about how much the Galaxy Gear will cost or how it will work.

On Friday, the online tech magazine Information Week reported that the device may feature a 2.5-inch video screen, making it significantly larger than the typical watch. The article also said the Gear will feature a dual-core processor chip, a 4-megapixel camera, and a Bluetooth radio chip for connecting to nearby digital devices, like smartphones.

The current generation of smartwatches lacks most of the functions of an iPhone or Android phone.

“It doesn’t replace your smartphone,” said Eric Migicovsky, chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif., smartwatch maker Pebble Technology Corp. “It’s not a complete Dick Tracy watch.”

Instead, the watch is like a remote control for accessing important features of the user’s smartphone.

For instance, the $150 Pebble smartwatch vibrates when the user’s phone gets an e-mail or text message. The screen can display the message, so the user can read it without looking at the phone — a handy feature when you are stuck in a business meeting. Pebble can also control the phone’s music player, so a listener can switch to a different song by tapping the watch’s touchscreen.

A Canadian start-up, Neptune Computer Inc., is developing a full-fledged Android smartphone-watch, the Pine.

“This device is your power center,” said Neptune founder Simon Tian.

The $335 Pine will have a 2.4-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi wireless networking, 32 gigabytes of storage, and unusual extras like a heart rate monitor and a detachable video camera. And the Pine will be able to place and receive phone calls.

Still, it’s an open question whether the new, improved smartwatches will appeal to consumers.

“You have to show me what are they bringing to the table that the others haven’t tried,” said Jonathan Gaw, technology analyst for IDC in Minneapolis.

Gaw’s skepticism is bolstered by evidence that most people just don’t care about smartwatches. In April, IDC asked consumers whether they’d want a watch that could perform smartphone functions — reminding them of appointments, controlling home appliances, or identifying incoming phone calls. Only 14 percent of those surveyed wanted a wristwatch with Caller ID, and they were even less interested in other features.

Instead, Gaw believes, consumers will more readily take to another wearable computing system, Google Glass. Gaw said that his survey found consumers were much more interested in Glass, a voice-controlled, head-mounted camera and video display, than in smartwatches.

By contrast, Carl Howe, tech analyst at Yankee Group in Boston, said Glass is “too much a computer” to become popular with the public. Howe said that interacting with a smartwatch “will be a more natural thing than Google Glass. It’s simply active jewelry,” he said.

Besides, Americans are buying watches again. US sales of personal timepieces surged from $4 billion in 2009 to $5 billion last year, according to the market research firm LGI Network. In a market that large, there may be room for a watch with a brain.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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