Rumours are flying as to whether Apple will join the race and make smart watches mainstream, but what can these devices offer the market and will watch retailers take them on? Rachael Taylor reports.
When smart phones first hit the market many of us saw them as unsexy, clunky tools for business, perhaps a fad for teenagers, but now for the majority of us it is hard to image life stripped of the ability to Google on a whim, track your route on a map while roving and be in constant contact with whether working or playing.
It is fair to say that the smart phone took the market by storm. Last year, according to statistics from eMarketer, 30.5% of the UK population owned a smart phone and it has forecast that this will rise to 65.1%, or 41.9 million people, by 2016.
The increasing importance of constant streams of digital information has made the smart phone an essential tool for modern life. With Twitter feeds to check, Facebook statuses to update, calls to make, texts to send, emails to check, how could we keep up with the pace without a smart phone and set of nifty thumbs?
But this digitisation of our lives is not just limited to one device. Most smart phone devotees also have laptops, tablets, music players, PCs, internet TV boxes, and with new technology, such as Apple’s iCloud software, it is becoming possible to link all these devices so that your texts pop up on your iPad and your phone taps into your home music system.
What this shows is that it is the technology that is truly important, not so much the device. As long as you can communicate and play online anywhere at any time, it could be a TV remote or a lunch box giving that access, as long as that access is given.
This flexibility with the carrier of the technology has led to the development of smart watches – watches that tell the time and are worn on the wrist like any other but can also pick up emails, tell you what the weather is going to be like and let you immediately moan about said weather update on Twitter.
Some such watches are already out on the market. LG first showed a smart watch at a technology fair back in 2009 and Sony has created a smart watch that uses a three-level micro display and Android technology to alert the wearer to new Facebook notifications, download apps and, most importantly, to calls and text messages, which is does by vibrating on the wrist to ensure that its owner never misses out on a call when they are in a noisy place or their phone is at the bottom of a bag.
The Sony watch, which can be connected to any other compatible electronic device, has a square face, available in white or black, and some thought has obviously been given to its aesthetics. Wearers can choose between a digital or analogue watch face, when it is being used to simply display the time, and it can be fitted with any 20mm strap out there, allowing for a wealth of styles and personalisation. Prices of tablets, phones and other such devices have been slowly skyrocketing but the RRP of the Sony SmartWatch is relatively low at £89, which has led online retailers such as Amazon and fashion hub Very to stock them.
THE INDEPENDENT BRANDS
But it is not just the big boys that are entering into the market. The Pebble watch hit the headlines when it achieved more than 100 times the funding it applied for through crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
The concept of the Pebble watch, an e-ink smart watch capable of carrying apps and connecting with mobile phones, was conceived by American product designer Eric Migicovsky. To get his project off the ground he turned to the latest online craze of crowdfunding.
The scheme allows entrepreneurs to present their business ideas, ask for a set amount of funding and gives them a certain time frame in which to raise the cash through high volumes of small amounts of cash from strangers who are usually offered something from the company to persuade them to do so. In Pebble’s case, Migicovsky presented his idea on Kickstarter and asked the site’s donors for a total of US$100,000 (£66,625).
In a matter of days Pebble hit its target, but as it still had time left on the clock the money kept rolling in, and by the end of its pledge time the idea had attracted 68,929 backers and US$10.3 million (£6.9m) of funding, which turned Migicovsky’s idea into a reality and his one-man operation into a viable business with 11 staff.
The project captured the imagination of the world and demonstrates that there is a real desire for smart watches, but the real hot topic in this emerging product sector boils down to one burning question – when is Apple going to join the party?
THE APPLE ANGLE
Apple has revolutionised the world of smart devices. It is not the only player in the market, and if you take a look at usage stats it is not even the most widely owned, but when we think of such digital accessories, iPad, iPod and iPhone trip off the tongue, but as yet we are still waiting on the iWatch.
There have of course been many rumours about an iWatch being in development, with one Chinese newspaper report even claiming to have a source inside an Apple factory, followed up by further speculative reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and even a mock up of what the watch might look like in The Times. But as yet, no official word from the technology superpower.
Such speculation from production sources has claimed that Apple would differentiate itself by using curved glass technology that would give it different look but also make its usability different to other smart watches. Corning, the company that created the glass for Apple’s latest devices, has recently developed a new kind of thin, bendable, ultra strong glass that could do the job.
Apple is, however, known for creating, building and testing many devices that never see the light of day and the rumoured iWatch could be just another idea to end up on the scrapheap. But as Forrester analyst Sara Rotman Epps pointed out to Wired magazine, Apple is already in the wearable goods market as it sells accessories that are compatable with its software through its Apple stores, such as the Jawbone UP, Nike+ FuelBand and Lark watch.
GOOD FIT FOR WATCH STORES?
Whether or not smart watches become a global trend, it seems unlikely that they will ever find a place in traditional high street watch retailers seems, but for web-based watch retailers it could be a plausible new avenue.
Keira Payne Gibbs, buyer at online watch retailer The Watch Hut, says that she would “definitely” consider taking on smart watches if the trend explodes. “Obviously Apple would be the ultimate goal, but I’d be open to other brands provided the technology was sound,” she says.
Matt Warren, chief executive of Jura Watches, which has a strong online presence and is now owned by CW Sellors, says that he is planning to introduce smart watches to its offer when the time, and the product, is right. “We will be [taking them on],” says Warren. “But the appearance needs to improve on current models to appeal more to the luxury crowd. Apple will achieve this. Personally, I think this stuff will be big. Wearable tech is the future.”
For now the world is holding its breath to see if Apple will get on board with the concept of a smart watch, and if it does it could well make the concept far more mainstream than it currently is, opening up the way for other brands as well as its own products. And for watch retailers ready to have a bit of fun with their watch offers a whole new world could be set to open up.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read a digital version of the magazine in full online, click here.