Like them or hate them, you have to give credit to the Samsung Gear watches. All six of them, actually. In a flurry between Fall 2013 and November 2014, Samsung had many, many watches. The Samsung Galaxy Gear was the very first. Its mix of communication, health tracking, and apps beat both Google’s Android Wear and Apple Watch to the punch by over half a year.
The Gear was the first ambitious, feature-stuffed smartwatch. It made phone calls via speakerphone, had fitness tracking, could control music playback, and it even had a camera. Later Gears added heart rate in early 2014. Last November’s Gear S was effectively a full-on Dick Tracy-style wristphone — a standalone device with its own cellular service.
Samsung’s tease of the next (round) Gear.
Smartwatches are everywhere now, but Samsung hasn’t released a single one this year…yet. But rumors of a new Gear watch are starting to pile up. Here’s what we think we know so far: the watch (code-named “Orbis”) will have a round 360×360-pixel display, a dial that can be turned to navigate like the Apple Watch’s digital crown, and will run a new version of Samsung’s Tizen software. And there could be as many as three different versions. Samsung already teased the watch back in the spring, and some features have become more apparent based on what the latest Gear watch development software points to.
Meanwhile, Samsung has two big events on tap, either of which would make a perfect unveiling point for a new smartwatch. The first is the company’s Unpacked event in New York City this Thursday, where two new phablet phones are expected to be announced. The second is Samsung’s press conference at the IFA show in early September — one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics trade show, it’s often used as as a launching pad for major products as shoppers turn their attention to the holiday buying season.
But the smartwatch landscape is now far more crowded then when that first Gear watch was unveiled less than two years ago, and the stakes are higher. Can Samsung get its (watch) groove back?
What Samsung Gear got right
The first Galaxy Gear watch ad was brilliant, better than any ad Apple ever made for its watch. As a parade of science fiction wrist-gadgets are shown, the Galaxy Gear emerges at the end, as the arrival of that future-dream. In that sense, the Galaxy Gear captured the surprise of the new. It arrived the same year as Google Glass: suddenly, it seemed, wearable tech was about to transform us. People knew about Samsung’s watch from those ads. It was talked about.
The flagship Samsung Gear watches ( Galaxy Gear, Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, Gear S) were full-fledged speakerphones, and I’ve met a fair number of people who loved to use them that way. Before the Apple Watch was available in the wild, Samsung offered calling on your wrist. You might not see a need for that, but a subset of field workers, delivery staff and people who work on the go found it useful.
Samsung also explored fitness tech on smartwatches before Google or Apple: steps, heart rate, even workout coaching. It didn’t always work well, but that health-tech focus led the way for what Apple Watch and Android Wear are now doing.
And most importantly, Samsung took chances. Android Wear has given us a lot of affordable smartwatches, but not many unique ones: they’re all basically the same under the hood. At least Samsung’s Gear watches have been ambitious, and different. Because Samsung controlled both hardware and software, the Gear watches could be uniquely tooled.
The Samsung Gear S, the last Gear watch, had a unique, longer curved screen, and its own cellular connection…but few apps that took advantage of it. The best Gear S apps looked and felt better than nearly anything I’ve seen on Android Wear, but finding more of those apps wasn’t easy.
Where the Gears dropped the ball
Here’s the flip-side to being first: Samsung Gear watches were experiments before the rest of the industry evolved, and they felt like leaps into the unknown. Gear watches only worked with Samsung phones. Also, they weren’t all that great: the software was nowhere near as well-designed as the hardware.
Also, Samsung Gear watches (with the exception of the odd-duck Gear Live, which ran Android Wear) run Samsung’s own Tizen operating system, and run apps from a Samsung Gear-specific app store. Those apps aren’t as plentiful as what you can get on Android Wear or Apple Watch, which cross-load mini-apps that live in Google Play and the Apple App Store.
Having so many different watches over such a short span of time also made picking one really difficult. The original Samsung Galaxy Gear had its own app store that ended up being torn down and rebuilt with all-new apps for the next-generation Gears the following spring. Some Gear watches had cameras (Galaxy Gear, Gear 2). Some were more like notification-enabled fitness trackers than full-fledged smartwatches (the Gear Fit), and some had cell service (Gear S). Samsung never made it easy to pick, or to tell the watches apart.
Where the next Gear needs to go
In less than a year, the landscape has changed fast. Apple and Google have unleashed smartwatches, the ante’s been raised. The next Gear watch needs to be unique, but it also needs to work well and be useful. Sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done when it comes to smartwatches.
Make it work with more phones. The biggest problem Samsung faces is Android Wear: Google’s watches at least have a common ecosystem, work with most Android phones, and work with apps found on Google Play. Gear watches use their own app ecosystem and only work with Samsung Galaxy phones. I’m still holding out hope that the next Gears will at least work on more Android phones, however unlikely that may be.
Add mobile payments. Now that Samsung has its own mobile payments system in Samsung Pay, it seems obvious this tech will work its way into the next Gear watch. Samsung Pay could work as a stand-alone way to pay for things on your wrist, possibly beating Google to the punch bringing wrist payments to smartwatches. But will it only work for Samsung phone owners?
Improve health tracking. Samsung had been among the first to incorporate heart-rate tracking into smartwatches. But Samsung’s S Health fitness app and ecosystem was never as good or as connected as top-end fitness apps, and the optical heart-rate tracking tech Samsung used had accuracy issues. Samsung’s been exploring more advanced health sensors via a separate SimBand initiative; could some of these end up in the next Gear watch?
Add big-name apps. Samsung needs to find ways to pull major app partners onto the next Gear watches. Apple’s next wave of Apple Watch apps and Android Wear’s continued growth are becoming smartwatch standards, and Samsung, as a third platform, needs to not feel like an app wasteland. I don’t need a lot of great apps, but I’d like more than previous Gears have had.
I have no doubt that Samsung makes great hardware. But Samsung needs more than that to make the next great smartwatch.