The world's atwitter with the latest news from Samsung—Lee Young Hee, executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile business, told Bloomberg on Monday that his company is making a smartwatch. As I've read over the reports and opinions on the subject I found myself coming back to a simple question: how will Samsung know what to do before Apple shows them?
Screnshots Reportedly from Samsung's Smartwatch Project
I mean, seriously, it's not like Samsung has any kind of track record of inventing new product categories. I'm not saying that Samsung doesn't invent stuff, but everything it does invent tends to be in categories brought forth by its betters.
That's right, its betters. I said it, and I mean it. Samsung follows in the footsteps of not only Apple, but Sony, Google, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, and a host of companies making TVs, toasters, refrigerators, washers and dryers, telecom networking kit, and other products.
Samsung has done well in the smartphone market, but it did so by using a free OS provided by Google and working overtime to make that OS look and behave more like iOS. Since then the company has produced marginally better hardware than a host of other Android OEMs, and it has seen great success from doing so.
Even Samsung's newest device, the Galaxy S4, is being called an iterative improvement over its predecessor (ironically, my own reaction was more positive about the device than mainstream reaction). There are some new software features, including a couple that are redundant to existing Android features and others that aren't likely to catch on.
Air Gestures is the most interesting new feature—it allows users to have limited control over their GS4 without physically touching it. That's cool, assuming it works and anyone actually uses it, but it's far from mainstreaming a new product category, which is what smartwatches will need.
Samsung does have its own smartphone OS called Bada. What has the company done with it? Nada. These devices are marginal, at best, and they never took off in the marketplace.
Now, smartwatches do exist today. In fact, Samsung brought one of the first ones to market, as noted by The Verge. This handsome fellow was introduced in 1999:
The Samsung SPH-WP10 Watch/Phone
Before you harsh on it for being absurd, this was 14 years ago and it was pretty darned cool for back then. But it didn't take off. There wasn't an explosion of phone watches flooding the market after this thing was released. It was not mainstreamed, not even close.
More recently we have kick ass third party products like The Pebble. This is a device that interacts with your iPhone or Android device, giving you access to information and controls on your wrist. Here's the Kickstarter video for Pebble:
Pebble has gotten all kinds of attention for being cool and exciting, and that most likely fed in to a rumor that Apple was working on a so-called "iWatch" smartwatch. Little—make that nothing—is known about the iWatch, but speculation was so intense that it briefly goosed Apple's stock.
Apple hasn't even acknowledged this thing, but we've had analyst notes, tons of ink, and all manner of drool spilt over the idea of an Apple iWatch. It must also have been the cause of moues of consternation and annoyance at Samsung, because the company made a point of letting the world know that it, too, is working on a smartwatch.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Samsung VP Lee Young Hee said, “We’ve been preparing the watch product for so long. We are working very hard to get ready for it. We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them.”
No doubt, Mr. Lee. You've been working on it so long, and dollars to donuts says that you won't release it until Apple releases its theoretical iWatch. And if you think that anyone on the planet will be fooled by this bizarre, defensive, me-too pre-strike, you've got another thing coming...
Wait, The New York Times already seems to have bought it. Brian X. Chen wrote, "Now that Samsung has said it is working on a smart watch, it will be more difficult for critics to call it a copycat even if Apple releases one first."
Uh-huh. We'll see about that.
The funny thing is that Samsung shouldn't worry about this. Of course Samsung is working on a watch. Google is, too. And so is Microsoft. Apple has some smart glasses in a black lab somewhere, as does Microsoft, and I bet Samsung does, too. All of these large tech companies are playing with all kinds of ideas and products, most of which will never see the light of day.
There is a difference between "preparing [something] for so long" and actually being able to mainstream a new product category because you've figured out how to make it work, how to give it relevance, and how to make it so attractive that people think differently enough to buy it and then use it.
This little stunt reminds me of Samsung's defensiveness when the still-unannounced Apple television set rumors were getting started. After Steve Jobs was quoted in Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography as saying that Apple had finally "cracked" the code for an Internet-connected TV, Philip Newton, Samsung Australia’s director of audio-visual, said:
When Steve Jobs talked about he’s ‘cracked it’, he’s talking about connectivity – so we’ve had that in the market already for 12 months, it’s nothing new, it was new for them because they didn’t play in the space. It’s old news as far as the traditional players are concerned and we have broadened that with … things like voice control and touch control; the remote control for these TVs has a touch pad.
That still gets the booby prize for jackassery in my book. Saying that something no one has seen is "nothing new" is just embarrassingly stupid. Mr. Lee's comments this week aren't that far behind. Yes, Samsung has officially said it was working on a watch first, but everyone knows that even this is in response to something Apple hasn't announced, thus negating the first-strike bonus.
Which brings me back to my original thesis. Samsung should embrace its role as a me-too OEM finding tremendous success in the footsteps of its betters. If the company wants to have a killer smartwatch, it should sit back and let Apple show the way first.
I'll leave you with a funny non sequitur: wouldn't it be funny if Apple was the behind the "iWatch" story just so that Samsung and other would-be rivals would start chasing their tales in an effort to beat Apple to a punch it never intended to land?