Wearable technology: they say it is the next big thing. What are you going to wear today? Oh I think I will don my T-shirt that helps my breathing, my pants that make me more virile, and my new shoes that count how many miles I have walked in a day. What about you? Oh I am planning to wear my new suit. Samsung has made its first big move, and it seems as revolutionary as a new TV for the 21st Century that can show colour images. If this is the latest example of technology that is set to change the world, and turn some of the world’s biggest companies into something much bigger, then I have this new concept you will love; it is called sliced bread. Yet for Apple – the company that for a very short while was the biggest firm in the world last year – we can draw a quite different conclusion. Samsung’s half-hearted step into the world of smart watches shows that once again a spectacular opportunity awaits its US rival.

Did you ever read Douglas Adams? You may recall that some of the regular jokes in his ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ series were those that described humans as so primitive that they still thought digital watches were a smart idea. For a while, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s digital watches seemed like a step towards a future envisaged by Isaac Asimov and Aldus Huxley. As an aside, if you took an exam in the early 1980s – and yours truly took many – and you shared the examination hall with engineering students, then every hour, on the hour, beeps rang out across the room. That was in the days when engineering was on its way out, and James Dyson’s dream of creating an engineering-led revolution seemed as likely as the idea that one day our digital watches might be replaced by telephones.

The new Samsung watch was released yesterday. It looked as elegant as a brick tied to a wrist, as useful as a spare appendix. It can make phones calls if you lift your arm up, it can take pictures, check emails and receive texts, but it can only do these things if you have your Samsung smart phone with you.

In other words it can do some of the things a smart phone, can do, though presumably not as well, but only if you have your smart phone to hand. This begs the question, of course: why not get your smart phone out of your pocket? Are the timesaving benefits of being able to look at your wrist over taking a phone out of your pocket so significant that it is worth spending all that extra money on a smart watch?

But that does not mean smart watches are not a good idea. They need to be better. For one thing they need to be standalone. Sure, they should be connected to the Internet or indeed the Internet of things, but if it needs a control box on your person to make the smart watch work, it does rather defeat the purpose. For another thing, if you are going to wear one of these things, they need to look smart not merely be smart.

They say first move advantage is crucial. Well, not if the first mover move is like this. The only thing likely to be moved as a result is profits turning to losses.
This is why design is so crucial. And this is why getting the user interface and the functionality right is so vital.

Samsung’s launch yesterday does not show that it has caught up with Apple. It does not show that the company is more than a follower. What it does show is that no one can yet do it like Apple has done it before.

Maybe the next Samsung watch will be a big improvement. Maybe the Apple watch will be as exciting as wearing a damp squib on your wrist; there is no way of saying for sure. But there is no reason, no reason at all, to think Apple has been knocked off its perch as the greatest innovator in consumer electronics. There are plenty of reasons to think, however, that Apple’s growth has merely hit a temporary lull.

 

© Investment & Business News 2013