All eyes may be on Samsung’s smartwatch plans, confirmed by the company’s mobile EVP today, but it’s not the first time the Korean firm has made a play – albeit underwhelming – for our wrists. Back in 2009 the company’s goal was to put an entire phone on your arm, in the shape of the S9110 watch phone. Faced with a 1.76-inch touchscreen – complete with a fake analog watchface, naturally – the Dick Tracy timepiece saw a limited, expensive launch and then swiftly sank from sight.
Mediocre specifications – even by the state of the 2009 marketplace – didn’t help. By trying to fit an entire phone into an 11.89mm thick watch, Samsung could only really accomodate the most basic of features: Bluetooth 2.1, 40MB of internal storage – enough for maybe ten MP3s for its onboard music player – and dualband GPRS data. You could scan your through email on the 176 x 220 display, thanks to Outlook sync, but the S9110 was really more of a terminal for calls and texts.
Of course, the S9110 looked like a powerhouse in comparison to Samsung’s first watch phone attempt, a full decade earlier with the SPH-WP10. That stood a towering two centimeters off your wrist, and offered such magic as voice dialing and a battery good for 90 minutes of talktime.
So what’s changed between 2009 and today? For a start, there’s been a backlash of sorts against convergence: the idea that a single device must satisfy our every need. Instead, the mobile industry has rediscovered specificity, with gadgets that do one or two things especially well, rather than making a hash at everything. We’ve seen that with Samsung’s own S Band, announced alongside the GALAXY S 4, following the fitness-tracking wearables trend to monitor your movements and squirt that data via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet.
That data sharing is the other big advance, or more accurately the efficiency of the wireless links we can now spread across our distributed tech. Bluetooth low energy, a feature of Bluetooth 4.0, slims its power requirements by a factor of a hundred compared to the greedy Bluetooth of the S9110, while still maintaining a 1Mbps transfer speed and a 50m range. Where the watch phone’s 630 mAh battery couldn’t really hope to keep the short-range wireless link active for more than a little hands-free kit use before the battery was extinguished, today’s devices can afford to maintain a persistent web of networking while still sipping power.
There’s a more obvious reason for the failure of watch phones to take off, despite their classic sci-fi appeal. Mobile displays have been getting progressively larger as the years have gone on; a year after the S9110 was announced, Samsung launched the original Galaxy S. At the time, its 4-inch screen seemed vast; now, the GALAXY S 4 is up to 5-inches, and those who want more screen space can slake their thirst with the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II. In contrast, a phone on your wrist needs to be small enough to be unobtrusive, something at odds with the pleasures of an expansive panel for your browsing, multimedia, messaging, and everything else your phone today can do.
We’re yet to see a fully convincing smartwatch. Pebble has perhaps come closest, but it’s still flawed – more around software than hardware, admittedly – and the Kickstarter-funded business model means general availability is still waiting on backer rewards being fulfilled. It’s not just a question of making the hardware sleek enough (though, when your natural watch-wearing audience is fond of their Rolex, Omega, IWC, or other brand-name timepiece, you really need to make sure your smartwatch can compete. People may stomach carrying two phones, but they probably won’t wear two watches) but delivering the right mixture of usability.
Too ambitious, and you lose the immediacy and at-a-glance convenience having a screen on your wrist delivers; you also start to encounter input and control issues. Too humble, and users may decide there’s not quite enough to warrant actually strapping your gadget on in the first place.
Samsung won’t talk specifics for functionality, though a previous leak describing a so-called GALAXY Altius hinted at a mixture of maps, music, messaging, and more. In short, we’re a long way from seeing whether it can crack the smartwatch conundrum, and a patchy track record in tech for your wrist suggests there’s plenty of work to be done before the Galaxy brand spreads to our arms.