Smart watches - the latest smartphone sweeteners

While next-gen accessories have an undeniable fun factor – their main job is to help to sell more smartphones and tablets. Smart watches are a good diversion in a market where meaningful innovation and market differentiation is getting harder.

The IFA consumer electronics trade show in Berlin in early September was notable for two things. First, with almost 90 years of history behind it, the show suddenly seems to be a favoured forum for global consumer tech giants to preview their big fall product releases. Second, amid considerable public and industry fervour, those same companies took the opportunity to launch their newest gambits in the field of smart accessories, with the latest in the line of so-called “smart watches” leading the charge and stealing even more of the limelight than at February’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Accessories divert attention from smart device innovation crisis

Samsung’s first Galaxy Gear smart watch is merely the tip of a bigger gadget iceberg that will generate many headlines, if not necessarily huge additional profits, for smartphone and tablet makers. Don’t be deceived. The intention of next-generation accessories such as these – HTC’s Mini Bluetooth “companion” handset and Sony’s QX detachable camera modules are also good examples – is to add value to two categories where meaningful innovation and market differentiation is becoming harder to come by, namely smartphones and tablets.

While significant improvement in core smart device categories is ongoing in areas such as screen, network, camera, and processor technology, the fundamental user experience of these devices has changed little since the first iPhone. The current fixation on endless variations in screen size, kaleidoscopic colours, and cameras with ever-higher megapixels is at least somewhat symptomatic of this.

This is not to dismiss the efforts of the manufacturers, which have not been aided in their search for differentiation by the essential similarity of their base smart device software and hardware platforms. The near ubiquity of Android among major manufacturers is a primary reason for this (although in no way the fault of Google), while differentiation centred on access to both popular and long-tail applications and content is less apparent than it once was.

Rather, next-gen accessories are a sensible way for device manufacturers to try and claw back some real differentiation relative to their rivals. With smart device shipments beginning to slow, the battle is no longer so much about increasing shipments as growing, or at least maintaining, market share. Next-gen accessories are currently the best means for both leading and second-tier device manufacturers to achieve this.

Sweeteners for device sales

While next-gen accessories undoubtedly have their utility – and often an undeniable fun factor – their primary purpose is to help to sell more smartphones and tablets. They are, after all, accessories, depending almost entirely on their host device for real utility.

As such, expect to see a growing number of accessories being offered as sweeteners in new retail bundles with smartphones and tablets. We shouldn’t expect gadgets such as smart watches to compete with the volumes sold of their host devices, but that doesn’t stop them being a worthwhile business for their brands.

As for smart watches themselves, there’s not much about the latest offerings from Samsung and Sony that is genuinely “smart.” Currently they have little ability to think and do for themselves, remaining slaves to their smartphone masters. This may change as the category grows up, but in the meantime we shouldn’t expect wonders from them.

Moreover, there may yet be a backlash from consumers who have become used to accessories, apps, and services largely interoperating across different devices. Many of the new accessories are designed only with their maker’s smartphones and tablets in mind. Their relatively high price tags demand more flexibility.

Risking consumer backlash

Erecting new barriers to interoperability at a time when many others are coming down may make sense for device manufacturers, but it may not for consumers.

To a considerable extent, the problem of interoperability stems from smart accessories’ diverting from the norm in terms of support by a smart device’s underlying software platform. This is substantially the same problem that exists in the world of PCs, where new peripherals require specific drivers to function with the host device.

The complicating factor with smart devices is the need to integrate accessories via firmware upgrades targeted at specific devices. This makes the process of enabling older devices to work with new accessories a laborious one, even within a vendor’s own smart device portfolio. Extending that capability to other manufacturers’ devices may feel like a step too far.

This offers some rationale, if not justification, for (for example) Samsung’s stance on third-party device manufacturer support for Galaxy Gear, which won’t even be compatible with most existing Galaxy smart devices when it starts shipping at the end of September.

Either way, smart accessories currently don’t seem that smart.

Tony Cripps is a principal analyst in Ovum's devices and platforms division. This post was first published on Ovum's Straight Talk, republished with permission.