Hey Samsung, Shouldn’t You Wait for the iWatch?

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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?

Reported Samsung Smartwatch Screenshots

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:

Samsung Phone Watch

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?

Comments

geoduck

I’ve been of the opinion that Apple arranges for leaks of red herrings like the iWatch and before it the Apple Television set specifically to get the other companies to spend a lot of money and effort trying to copy something that Apple knows isn’t going to sell well or make much money. Meanwhile Apple is cooking up the actual Next Big Thing behind the scenes.

mrmwebmax

+

As a retro hold-out lover of classy digital watches (yes, they are out there), I have a recent-model black anodized metal Fossil digital that has all of the class of a “real” watch, and none of the nylon of a typical sports watch, while still having that functionality I love. Functionality aside, this is where Apple can take a decisive lead if every tech company jumps on the smartwatch maybe-fab.

The Pebble is nice, but I would never wear one. Too plasticky. A watch needs to function as a piece of jewelry just as much as a timepiece, and that includes smartwatches. Now look at smartphones and tablets: Who’s making the jewelry there? Apple, and only Apple.

Jony Ive is the secret weapon in the smartwatch war, should Apple decide to enter. Apple proved that style mattered to PCs (iMac), laptops (everything from iBook onward), music players (every iPod), smartphones (iPhone), and tablets (iPad/iPad mini). But here’s the thing: Those were all product categories where style never mattered before.

Watches are different. In an era where I still get SPAM about how I can increase my status at the office by buying a “genuine imitation designer watch” (oh the irony in that pitch), no one is going to want to wear a nylon strap into the board room. There’s a fine line between the five-figure time pieces and a well-done smartatch that offers both class and functionality at a reasonable price: Only Apple can pull it off. For God’s sage, Samsung’s latest flagship phone, just released, is still made out of plastic. That may cut it for some in a smartphone, but a watch—even a smartwatch, especially one worn to the office—needs a hell of a lot more design appeal.

Good luck with anyone outside of Apple pulling that one off.

mhikl

Good for you Bryan. This is the MOS I remember. So here is my take.

Saying is far different from doing. FacsimileSam is like the chicken without a head, it’s off to the races running into everywhere until set on the right track with recipe, maps and leads to gallop after. Nope. It will be a cold day on the Sun before that sad company does any inventing with the copy equipment turned off. As you opined, without the sweat of others, FaxedUpSam has never invented anything that it didn’t blatantly copy from others, it just doesn’t have the bullocks where it matters. However, no doubt it has tooled up and is ready to go in five weeks once Apple shows it what to do.

But I suspect something like the iWatch will be coming from Apple. Doesn’t it seem that the smart phone is in its prime? What comes anew, other than desperately iterating up its wazoo, big time, or bragging about size as FS does so well. The Queen of copy is trying to ride the add-on trail Apple already has blazed with its stores and integrations. And in its ever mad race to catchup the easy way is confounded by the copyist’s nightmares of “what do we do next”?

There’s no fall like the big fall and King Kopy is teetering on the overhang to a mighty spectacular drop.

nealg

One of the advantages that Samsung had over the other Android phone makers was as a supplier of parts to Apple. I am sure that when Apple was building their iPhone, Samsung was taking notes. With Apple freezing Samsung out of more and more of its supply chain, it will have less of an advantage over other manufacturers guessing what Apple will come up with next.

Brian, I like the idea of the possible head fake by Apple getting the others to waste resources, however, the watch as an accessory really makes a lot of sense so that in my mind there is a 50/50 chance that Apple will come up with some type of watch or something close that is wearable.

Lee Dronick

“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?”

The other day I made comment about deception being a big part of warfare, and business is a continuation of war by other means. Apple could have something in the works that could be a paradigm shift, something that will make everyone say “Why didn’t I think of that.”

other side

“How will Samsung know what to do before Apple shows them?”

I wouldn’t be sneering at Samsung just yet.  An iWatch will be Apple’s first big test to prove they still have it post-Steve.  If Apple gets it right, well then awesome.  But there’s the very real possibility Apple could stumble with it too, in which case I wouldn’t want to be a shareholder.

Let’s see what Apple brings to market, if anything, before telling the competition they have it wrong.  I’m as big of an Apple supporter as anyone, just don’t want to invite karma. smile

Bryan Chaffin

Thanks for the comments so far, folks. I love the thoughtful commentary.

Other side, you make a great point.

MuppetGate

Those UI screenshots look suspiciously like Windows Phone.

jfbiii

It’s not the watch part that will give Samsung trouble. They already have watches to look at and copy. No, what they need apple to show them is what the UI on a watch should look like, including any new app icons.

aardman

Absolutely agree with mrmwebmax.  A smartwatch, to succeed, has to be as much a fashion item as a gadget.  For an iWatch to succeed, as in really succeed, it has to be picked by fashionistas as the next big thing.  And yes, among tech companies, only Apple has the design chops and the brand cachet that would get designers to have their runway models wear an iWatch when the latest collections are introduced during fashion week, or for Vogue to have a supermodel wear one on a photo spread, or for top-tier departments stores and boutiques to carry them in their fashion accessories counters. 

Apple also has to have several designs and keep churning out new ones at a regular pace, including some signature designs by name fashion houses, because as a fashion accessory, a lot of people will not wear the same watch day in, day out.  A lot of women I know, and some men too I bet, own 4 or 5 different watches.

The business model is as much higher-end Swatch as traditional Apple.

Rob

I disagree with the idea that getting the watch right would prove that they have it post-Steve. A Watch is a new package, that will probably be 90% things they already do (or others do, e.g. Fitbit).

A good proof post Steve would be to reimagine something, as he did many things, and figure out how it would fit into a whole system (e.g. the music/iPod stuff and the iPhone/Carrier).

wab95

Rob:

I suspect that you profoundly underestimate what the iWatch represents, should its predicted features be realised http://asktog.com/atc/apple-iwatch/. Indeed, I suspect that most observers will initially underestimate what the device means, once it debuts.

Bryan et al:

In my opinion, Samsung’s assertion of ‘so long working’ on a smart watch, against the backdrop of their record of blatant imitation of others’ leading products, is a painfully obvious attempt at deflecting any criticism of their aping, yet again, Apple, however coincidentally similar or dissimilar their product will be. Undoubtedly, they have had such plans, and perhaps even prototypes for years. As you’ve shown above, they even had a product about a decade and a half ago, but that it will, independently, resemble anything that Apple will produce lies somewhere between remotely unlikely and laughable beyond a sea of incredulity. The only question is whether or not their attempt at deflection will involve lawsuits.

The big differentiator, and here is where I see potential peril for Samsung, is the ecosystem integration that a smart watch will likely mean for Apple vs what Samsung can do at that level. Currently, Samsung haven’t much to work with, and this could put measurable daylight between the two companies as tech savvy consumers play with these devices and tap their potential.

Time will tell (bad pun) on the pending smart watch wars.

wab95

Bryan:

I wish we could edit our posts, but understand this will not happen.

My sentence above was intended to read, ‘extremely unlikely to to laughable’. A distraction interrupted me in mid-sentence, as I considered ‘remotely plausible’, with the unintended outcome you see above.

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