This Week in Tablets: Why the success of the smartwatch is linked to your tablet and smartphone

August 31, 2013

In light of the disappointing tablet sales figures for Q2 2013, IDC’s downward revision of its tablet sales forecast by just under 2 million was no surprise.

The reasoning behind it all? Kind of surprising. 

Yes, the absence of any major tablet announcements in the second quarter hurt. (Based on early reports, we’re going to be waiting until at least October for a new iPad.) But in outlining the risk factors for the rest of 2013, IDC’s latest Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker directly referenced phablets and smartwatches as a possible threat.

Phablets? This make sense, even if they are ultimately tablets that blur the line between smaller-sized smartphones and their bigger tablet brethren. An example of this blurriness is Samsung’s recently released 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega. At this size, it would be easy to argue that it’s much more tablet than phone.

But smartwatches as tablet competitors? IDC’s logic behind such a claim is based upon the assumption that the market will be flooded with low-cost, value-category tablets, which won’t appeal to consumers as much as shiny new watches like the Galaxy Gear will.

On the surface, it feels like a stretch, but it's potentially true. If a consumer can afford to buy one awesome gadget for the rest of the year, and there aren't any significantly new and different tablets on the market, they might choose to hold onto their existing device and buy a watch or phablet instead.

March of the smartwatch

Like it or not, these watches are indeed coming. Early this week, Samsung confirmed that it will announce the Galaxy Gear watch at IFA in Berlin next week on September 4. LG is also working on a smartwatch of its own (along with a phablet and Firefox-based device). And then there’s Apple, which is almost certainly working on the iWatch.

Also this week, Juniper Research forecast that smartwatch device sales will reach 38 million units by 2018, with one million of the devices being shipped and sold this year. That’s not outrageous growth—if these numbers are realized, this would be just a bit under 10% of IDC’s 2017 tablet sales forecast of 407 million units.

The more rumors that leak about Samsung’s smart watch, the more interesting it sounds. Here’s what we think we know right know: The Gear will carry a 2.5-inch 320 x 320-inch OLED screen, have 1GB of system memory, 6-8GB of data storage, a 4MP camera, will run Android Jelly Bean, and will provide 10 hours of battery life.

The truth is that part of what makes the very concept of a smartwatch so exciting is that all these data specifications, speeds, and feeds can’t possibly convey the watch’s promise or its usefulness. Furthermore, we’ll only know this in the context of using these gadgets with phones and tablets.

4 Key questions for Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch

Like many people, I have many, many questions about Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. They include the following:

Will 10 (or even 12) hours of battery life be acceptable on a watch? I’m having a hard time imagining a wearable computer that I can’t wear from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. If this isn’t possible, how will Samsung (or any device manufacturer) work around it?

How will it co-operate with both a phone and a tablet? For the immediate future, the interaction between watch and device is where the rubber will hit the road. However, if the Galaxy Gear or any other watch is limited to a single pairing, this will almost certainly disappoint users like me, who are constantly switching back and forth between phone and tablet.

How will notifications work? And, equally important, how will responses to notifications work?

What about gaming? Don’t think for a second that smartwatches won’t be used for gaming. If the Galaxy Gear doesn’t have at least one game, I’ll be surprised. Another consideration: Will there be some kind of gaming link between tablet/phone and watch?

I could go on and on. I’m sure you could too. How will it enhance the fairly basic function of telling the time? What and how will the camera be used? What kind of connectivity will it have? What kind of unique applications for it will be created? Will there be an open app market for these watches?

Let’s be clear: The only way smartwatches succeed is if two conditions are met. First, they have to fulfill a promise that phones and tablets have yet to realize. This could literally mean anything, but it likely will net out to mean some micro level of control and notification, and/or some way of pairing with the increasing number of sensors in our lives.

Second, these watches need to successfully integrate into the various OS matrices we’re all plugged into, be it Android-Windows, Android-MacOS, MacOS-iOS, etc.

A few months ago, I argued that Apple needed to jump into this category fast and first. Given the number of questions I have, and the unlikely possibility that the very first watch in this category wil answer them all in satisfactory fashion, I’m rethinking this stanc. From Apple’s perspective, better to let the other guys jump into the pool first, in order to test the waters.

The only risk here is that by allowing Android platform manufacturers innovate—particularly Samsung—Apple cedes important psychological ground to its biggest competitors.

This week’s winner(s): Parallels Access, and Tabby Award Winners

Two big winners this week. One of the more interesting stories of the week presents a real win for workers who value their desktop, are frequently untethered, yet have a real need for very specific applications and functions that only their desktop can provide.

Parallels—a company that made a name for itself by using virtualization to allow Macs to run Windows—announced Parallels Access, a solution that provides remote access from an iPhone to a Mac or Windows desktop.

This has been done before. The twist here is what Parallels calls the “applification” of your remote computer. Instead of forcing you to remotely control your computer via moving a mouse around its desktop, Access creates shortcuts directly to your computer’s applications. And once you launch an application, the software runs it full screen on your tablet.

One great design feature is the presence of special platform-specific keys on the virtual keyboard, such as functions key, the Windows key, and the Apple key. This also means that, with the right connectivity, if you roll with a Mac Keyboard with your MacBook, you’re essentially working at your desktop.

I’m betting that for Parallels, this is the beginning of a very important migration. Remote access is great, but given the full-screen, app-y nature of the software, I’m finding it hard to believe that at some point, Parallels (or someone else) is going to allow us to eliminate the remote connection between tablet and desktop, and go straight through the cloud.

Parallels Access is available for the Mac today, with Windows support coming in the near future.

An equally important story this week was TabTimes’ announcement of the winners of the first-ever Tabby Awards. In all, 24 winners were selected, and the winning developers were from 7 different countries: Canada, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S.

This week’s loser: Magazine publishers?

One of the more disappointing stories this week was an Ad Age article reporting that in the first half of 2013, magazines reported 10.2 million subscribers to their digital editions.

That’s not bad, right? Well, unfortunately, a single magazine—Game Informer—accounted for 33% of those subscribers.

It’s not entirely bleak, thankfully. Advertising sales are up across the 58 iPad editions the Publishers Information Bureau tracks, and circulation continues to climb—it actually doubled in the first six months of 2013. 

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