Pebbles and Gears and market share – what’s up with smart watches?

To nobody’s enormous surprise, I’ve spent a chunk of this morning bickering on Twitter. In this case, largely in the wake of the Galaxy Gear smart watch. Clayton Christensen was famously wrong about the iPhone the first time around. Now, he’s a couple orders of magnitude smarter than I am, but I basically want to be him when I grow up, so here’s my couple of cents on Pebble, smart watches, why I don’t understand them and whether there’s a market.

The Galaxy Gear is – broadly – Samsung’s response to the eye (and headline) catching KickStarter success of Pebble. But people have been prototyping this shtick for a while. Superficially, you can see why: there’s a kind of appealing sci-fi cache to smart devices of all kinds, and people have been building digital watches that do other things for as long as they’ve been building digital watches. Personally, I think Douglas Adams had the last word on this, but then I wear an analogue wristwatch in minimalist steel, chosen to fit in with my wardrobe, not my tech stack.

What smart watches do so far is act as a front-end to your existing smartphone, offering you a kind of sexed-up lock screen. There’s your actual, you know, clock, plus some status alerting like unread emails, caller ID and maybe answering, some nice basics. It’s quite a nice idea for that use case where you don’t actually want to put your hands in your pockets. I’m only being mildly facetious here – at the weekend I tried to take a call while kneading the dough for liver dumplings, and my phone ended up looking like a prop from The Thing.

On this analysis, however, you’re asking people to pay $150 for a product that’s competing with washing your hands.

Are there people that dumb and/or lazy? A thoroughgoing jade might suggest that Pebble managed to find just shy of seventy-thousand of them. But I’m not sure I buy it. There’s got to be some other appeal here. What might a smart watch be competing with, what jobs might we hire it to do?

As it stands, the watch is an incredibly well-optimized way of displaying a single, simple type of (heavily visual) information. The non-consumption it started competing with is reasonably easy to infer – a portable way of knowing the time must have been pretty damn incredible some time in the 1600s.

Right now, timekeeping is functionally ubiquitous, your smartphone is a pocket watch on crack, and that thing on your wrist is a rather nice bracelet with a particularly adjustable strap. Pebble’s price tag isn’t really all that outrageous next to the modern fashion watch.

It’s plausible, then, that smart watches are just competing with watches – acknowledging their faint redundancy and trying to offer an appealing new angle. Certainly, they’ll catch they eye of the gadget magpies with disposable income. There’s a good deal of “Look at this new cool thing I can do with my smartphone” here, and the ability to customize the clockfaces is going to get a certain set of consumers hot under the collar.

Is there any actual utility? Perhaps, and for sure some will emerge. Cyclists on my Twitter feed were excited about them as a front end for navigation apps. You can see competition with fancy pedometer widgets, too. Like smartphone apps, smart watches could potentially be a convergence-in-a-device type way of consolidation/eliminating a number of other smaller purchases. I wouldn’t spend $150 on one of those arm straps to hold a phone at the gym, but I’d use a Pebble as one if I’d bought it anyway.

The Pebble has its first tranche of demand already in the bag, the Gear has its headlines and assured spots on every VC dad’s Christmas list. The wider market I’m not so sure. Very few people are going to hire a smart watch in place of washing their hands, and the Pebble or the Gear or whatever have exactly the same aesthetics-dependent shot at the fashion watch market as everything since the Hamilton Pulsar P1 (albeit at a fraction of the price). That’s not none, but it’s fragile. This leaves the pure gadget markets, split broadly into “look at my shiny thing” and people taking a speculative punt to see what utility emerges.

Those people probably number more than 68,929 – but here’s what I think more likely. Just as Microsoft desperately wants social media to become a feature of (and thus consumed via) the platform – rather than a destination product – so digital watches may absorb the smart watch. You won’t buy a $100-200 smart watch. You might buy a $50 one, but it’ll just be a digital watch. If people like the functionality, this will either become what watches do, or will be such an obvious add-on that it’ll be distributed free or strongly cross-sold with the initial handset purchase.

That’s my current guess, anyway. The smart watch is the kind of shiny niche toy and/or solution looking for a problem that KickStarter breathes life into so well (Ouya, anybody?). It’ll be an interesting curio at launch price, and a feature not a product in a few years time.

Or not. Microsoft are betting that way with SkyDrive against DropBox, and much as I love it, I don’t hear the champagne corks popping any time soon.