HERE’s something worth watching, if you’ll excuse the pun, between now and next Wednesday, during which time the IFA consumer electronics show will take place in Berlin and Apple will (it is still rumoured, at the time of writing) have its annual iPhone-unveiling product launch in Cupertino, California.
At IFA, which happens first — from this weekend to next Wednesday — all eyes will be on Samsung, which is Apple’s main rival in the mobile-device market. The rumours and leaks are flying thick and fast from both camps, and it seems a dead certainty that Samsung will unveil its Galaxy Note 3 "phablet" (that’s a portmanteau of "phone" and "tablet", for the uninitiated) at IFA, with considerably improved specifications. Less certain, although still extremely likely, is that Samsung will also unveil the Galaxy Gear, its new "smartwatch", which will be an Android-powered interface for Samsung’s smartphones, "phablets" and tablets with a strong focus on personal health and fitness apps and integration.
This of course raises the question: in addition to the expected new iPhone 5S, and a budget, plastic-backed version, the iPhone 5C, available in a variety of colours, does Apple, which has long been rumoured to be working on the production of an iWatch, have anything to match or beat the Galaxy Gear?
It was first reported in July that Apple had applied for a trademark for the name, iWatch, in Japan, fuelling speculation that the device is on its way. But Apple CEO Tim Cook has publicly expressed scepticism about the idea, as well as more generally about wearable technology such as Google Glass, which looks set to become available next year.
In June, he told a gathering of technical and media executives: "There’s nothing that’s going to convince a kid who has never worn glasses or a band or a watch to wear one, or at least I haven’t seen it."
In May, he told the All Things Digital D11 conference: "For something to work here, you have to convince people it’s so incredible, that they want to wear it … If we had a room full of 10 to 20-year-olds and we said, ‘Everyone stand up that has a watch,’ I’m not sure anybody would stand up."
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear will join a market segment that is quickly starting to get crowded. Sony already has its Android-compatible SmartWatch 2, which went on sale earlier this year, while Pebble Technology has sold nearly 100,000 of its Pebble smartwatches after raising $10m on crowd-funding website Kickstarter to get them into production.
But here’s the thing: while the Pebble and the SmartWatch 2 are fairly good-looking devices with fairly limited functionality, leaked images of the Galaxy Gear show it to be a huge, chunky thing that looks like it came straight out of a 1970s science-fiction movie. Imagine one of Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone strapped to your wrist and you won’t be far off. The same leaks report that it will have only a 10-hour battery life, which will make it practically useless as far as watches go.
The Financial Times reported recently that, despite a hiring spree for its iWatch project, to help with "hard engineering problems that they’ve not been able to solve", Cook is very prepared to pull the plug on the project if it isn’t up to scratch, which, judging by his recent comments, it doesn’t sound as if it is.
Apple runs the risk of getting left behind in the smartwatch game if it waits too long to release one of its own. But on the face of it, it’s better off waiting if it means that it will put something on the market that looks good enough and is functional enough for people actually to want to wear it.