Smartwatches have been around for a while, but on the lunatic fringe. Crazed gadget fans have been seeking them out for years. But nobody else.
Looking at the industry, you'll find a minority of big consumer electronics and computer companies in the smartwatch business, and their offerings are clearly not suitable for mainstream users.
It all changes this summer.
First, let's have a look at the smartwatch universe as it exists today. Then, we'll see how the category will come to life over the coming few months.
What's wrong with the smartwatch market?
Today's smartwatches are, for the most part, way too bulky and clunky, and they involve way too many trade-offs to make them widely accepted consumer electronics products.
(Note that in recent months it's become standard to differentiate between smartwatches and fitness bands. In this column, I'm talking only about smartwatches.)
The leading smartwatches include the Samsung Gear 2, the Samsung Gear 2 Neo, the Sony SmartWatch 2, the Pebble Steel, the Martian Voice Command, the Martian Notifier, the Cookoo, the I'm Watch and a few others.
The watches that are more full-featured, such as the Samsung and Sony products, tend to be massive and dorky looking. The relatively elegant options, like those from Pebble or Martian, have limited screens and minimal functionality.
None are widely supported by thriving app ecosystems. Very few are acceptable to most women.
And each product has random limitations all its own -- for example, the Samsung watches interact only with a limited number of Samsung phones.
What happens this summer
Google has already announced partners for Android Wear, including Samsung, LG Electronics, Fossil, HTC, Asus and others. With all of these major companies building on the Android Wear operating system, it becomes a more attractive platform for app developers.
What's extremely powerful about Android Wear is the development platform and Google's intention to drive huge usage of its development tools and resources. Only app developers (and lots of them) can make the smartwatch category come to life, and Android Wear is already off to a strong start.
I'm sure we'll hear a lot more about Android Wear at Google's upcoming developer conference, Google I/O (which I plan to cover).
One of the best features of the Android Wear SDK is that it allows for round watches. Google's own Motorola is making the best-known round Android Wear watch, called the Moto 360. (Motorola will soon be a Lenovo company.) The Moto 360 is scheduled to come out this summer.
I believe that round watches will dominate the category because they're more likely to look like elegant, traditional watches, rather than boxy, dorky gadgets lashed to the wrist.
LG will make one of the first Android Wear devices, and its first watch, called the LG G watch, will be square.
Google won't have the only major smartwatch operating system on the market.
A report published on the Forbes website this week says Microsoft is working on a new smartwatch that could be on the market as early as this summer. The watch would have sensors for health monitoring and it would sync with Android phones, iPhones and Windows Phones.
Cross-platform compatibility would make the Microsoft smartwatch vastly more compatible than any of Samsung's smartwatches.
There are lots of other exciting things happening in the smartwatch category. For example, a startup called Kairos is working on a mechanical watch with a crystal that turns into a smartwatch screen when notifications come in. It's now available for pre-order for delivery by the end of the year. It's not clear how closely the final product will match the absolutely stunning model shown in the promotional video. But the concept is promising.
Also: Samsung is reportedly working on a smartwatch with a built-in phone, possibly called the Gear Solo. It wouldn't need a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone because the phone feature is built in. Reports say Samsung is talking to U.S. and European carriers about distribution and support.
What might happen this summer
Most Apple watchers expect Apple to introduce a smartwatch, which could be called the iWatch. Apple has hired a range of professionals who would be necessary for developing a smartwatch, including fashion types, battery experts, medical sensor specialists and more.
Rumors are rumors, and they can't be taken too seriously. But a rumor surfaced this week that Apple's iWatch will have a round face like the Moto 360 and that it will go into production this summer. It's possible that Apple could even announce the iWatch on Monday at its Worldwide Developers Conference.
All rumors about the specific attributes of the Apple iWatch are unreliable. However, many points of evidence strongly suggest that Apple is working on some kind of smartwatch. And an Apple watch would very likely be accompanied by a strong developer program and would win many app developers.
Why smartwatches are important
A very big thing is about to happen. After halting semiprogress over the past decade, a massive change will take place. All or most of the big mobile operating system companies -- the big mobile app ecosystem cultivators -- will unleash their platforms and programs and products.
Think of the smartphone market before apps and after. Night and day. Things will be the same in the smartwatch market: Apps will change everything, and in ways that are impossible to imagine.
Smartwatches are a big deal because they could change human behavior and culture. The ubiquity of smartphones has nearly killed the cultural habit of people wearing wristwatches. The smartwatch revolution will bring back the wristwatch. And it will start the wearable computing revolution, too.
It all starts this summer. And it's about time.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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