Krakow: Smartwatches Are Not The Next Big Thing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Is the world waiting breathlessly for smartwatches? There are rumors that Microsoft ( MSFT), Apple ( AAPL) and Samsung all think so. They're supposedly working on wirelessly-connected, data-centric wrist watches as the "next big thing". If past attempts are any indicator, they're going to be expensive flops.

The electronics industry needs something new, that's for sure. Growth is desktop computer sales are non-existent. Laptops are stagnating. Even the red-hot smartphone segment is showing signs of a slowdown. Plus, everyone already has at least one flat-screen HDTV monitor in their home, radio is a past tense technology and reasonably-priced digital cameras are losing out to smartphones. What's left? Wrist watches?

Mechanical watches used to be standard equipment for nearly everyone in the civilized world. That started changing when electronic/digital watches gained popularity in the 1970s. Instead of a quick glance to see the time, you had to arduously press a button to wake-up the screen. Good grief.

As cellular phones became more and more affordable people, realized they no longer needed to wear a watch to tell time. Look around the next time you're on a train or bus or in a restaurant. Most people aren't wearing wrist watches. But they do have a phone, tablet or book reader in their hands. The exact time is already right in front of them.

O.K. watches can serve as flashy fashion statements. Bigger. Bolder. Even more colorful. But, not a necessity.

As for smartwatches, Microsoft has gone down this road before. Nine years ago they introduced their Smart Personal Object Technology - or SPOT - meant for household electronic devices. The first such product was the SPOT smartwatch first built by Fossil ( FOSL), Suunto and later Tissot and Swatch. Using small portions of FM radio broadcast band they rolled out a rudimentary data broadcast system in 100 U.S. cities. For $59/year you could have your watch (or other SPOT-connected product) deliver the time, local weather, news headlines and more.

People weren't ready for SPOT connected coffee makers and alarm clocks either. Not nearly enough took Microsoft up on their offer. The watches were discontinued in 2008. The data broadcast service officially ended on December 31, 2011.

Luckily, the next generation of smartwatches won't have to rely on FM broadcasters. They'll use Wi-fi, Bluetooth or some other short distance technology to "connect" with your smartphone or tablet. Think of the new devices as wearable, wireless remote control units. Time, weather, mews, alerts, SMS messages and even wireless playback of your music/video files all available on your wrist. You'll plug your headphones directly into your watch - or even use some sort of wireless (Bluetooth) model.

The big question is whether buyers will bite. Why would today's multi-connected consumer need another device to do what their current devices can do so well. Smartwatches will just be extensions of personal electronics that they already own. It could be a very tough sell.

Microsoft's smartwatch could mimic the look and feel of their Windows Mobile OS. Samsung might use a version of Google's ( GOOG) Android OS or one of their own (they've invested in a number of open source software companies). But, you just know that iOS-based Apple devices will be very cool right out of the box.

How cool? We'll reportedly find out soon enough.

--Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet's senior technology correspondent.

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