Barcelona show to highlight battle in the growing smartwatch market, writes Rhiannon Williams
Mobile World Congress is the largest global event you’ve probably never heard of. Every spring, the great and the good of the technology world, including Samsung, LG and HTC, descend on Barcelona to show off their latest flagship smartphones and gadgets. The four-day exhibition, starting on Monday, may lack the futuristic bombast of January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest event in the technology calendar, but it’s a crucial launch pad for companies hoping to set the agenda for the year ahead.
As the name suggests, MWC has traditionally been a showcase for the newest mobiles, but in recent years other gadgets have cropped up to vie for our attention as the industry becomes more innovative. Consumer interest in the smartwatch, defined as a digitised watch with functions beyond simple timekeeping, has been slowly growing as larger and more recognised brands begin to release their own offerings.
Details of the smartwatches destined for launch in Barcelona remain closely guarded secrets, with the exception of the LG Watch Urbane, which the company has confirmed will be debuting at the show. While Samsung, HTC and Huawei are rumoured to be preparing new watches for the event, arguably the most famous smartwatch of all won’t be making an appearance – the Apple Watch.
The official unveiling of the Apple Watch by chief executive Tim Cook in September last year simultaneously ended years of speculation over whether the Californian company would ever create a wearable, and catapulted the smartwatch into the conscience of people who may otherwise never have considered buying one.
Given that the iPod, iPhone and iPad undeniably redefined what we have come to expect and demand from MP3 players, mobile phones and tablets respectively, Apple has understandably high hopes for the Watch to become the product which becomes shorthand for the category.
The smartwatch as a product is far from new. Japanese company Seiko released the Pulsar NL C01 in 1982, a bulky digital wristwatch believed to be the first to sport a user-programmable memory – it could store up to 24 digits. In the decades since, many companies including Microsoft, Fossil and IBM have made admirable attempts to launch a mainstream version, to varying degrees of success.
Like those already on the market, the Apple Watch blends the functionality of a smartphone – answering incoming calls, sending text messages and checking emails – with fitness and health features such as tracking the number of steps you take in any given day, or monitoring your heart rate. Unlike its rivals, it has the unique appeal only Apple products can inspire. Love it or loathe it, when Apple releases a device, the world pays attention. The company has never, and probably will never attend MWC, preferring to reveal its products at its own organised events where it can execute maximum control over proceedings. Apple is holding its own event on Monday, March 9, in San Francisco, where Cook is likely to announce further Watch details, including battery life, more detailed pricing structures and new or previously unexplained features.
“As always, we would very much like to have Apple as a visible participant at the Mobile World Congress, as all of their key mobile network customers generally attend the event,” organiser GSMA said, somewhat wistfully.
Despite Apple’s notable absence, the spectre of the Apple Watch and the inevitable frenzy that will ensue when it finally goes on sale in April hangs heavily over the rivals hoping to carve out their positions within the category. While consumer awareness of smartwatches has never been higher, how do you compete with the product which threatens to dominate the sector despite not even being available to buy yet?
Building a smartwatch financed by benevolent individuals is one approach that seems to be working.
Systems design engineer Eric Migicovsky launched a campaign on fundraising site Kickstarter to raise $100,000 towards his fledging square-faced smartwatch Pebble in 2012, eventually raising some $10.3m towards the project. The first Pebble was launched in 2013, and was swiftly followed by the second generation Pebble Steel. Last week, the company announced another Kickstarter campaign for newest model Pebble Time, seeking $500,000 to help bring the new watch to market in May. More than 45,000 individuals pledged more than $4m (£2.5m) within three hours of the campaign going live – a figure which has risen to more than $10m at the time of writing.
So what makes Pebble’s devices so appealing? An average battery life of seven days, price of around £100 and compatibility with both Google’s smartphone operating system Android and Apple’s iOS phones make it a convenient, affordable and simple to use device. Rival watches rarely last beyond a single day’s charge, typically start at around £200 – the Apple Watch is expected to be £300 upwards – and tend to be locked into a single operating system.
Due to this, Pebble has been credited as the first smartwatch which demonstrated the product’s potential as a more mainstream device, with big hitters Samsung, Sony and LG and eventually Apple releasing their own in its wake.
Migicovsky is refreshingly candid about his company’s direct competition with Apple, a subject very few others would be willing to get into.
“We’re still incredibly tiny compared to the behemoths of the tech world, but we’re at the beginning of the age of smartwatches, and we’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
Announcing the Pebble Time ahead of MWC was a conscious decision, he says. Migicovsky will be speaking at the conference during a session about wearable devices on Tuesday, and is “extraordinarily excited” to see what people think of the new device.
The founder has a right to be joyful, says CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood. “Releasing details of the Pebble Time ahead of the beginning of the conference is a really canny move. Pebble were the first major smartwatch player, and the hipsters in Silicon Valley loved them.
“Their first watch was against the grain, it’s been spectacularly successful by shifting one million units within two years. It’s more challenging for the other brands who don’t have that record of defined Kickstarter success behind them.”
Whether smartwatches eventually become as commonplace in our everyday gadget arsenal as smartphones – once dismissed as an unnecessary blend of computer and mobile – remains to be seen. Research from market insight firm Accenture found that while some 12pc of 24,000 consumers surveyed intend to buy a smartwatch within the next year, 41pc plan to purchase one by 2020. Pebble is proof that consumer appetite exists, and suggests that the lukewarm sales of competitors is less to do with overall lack of interest in the device, and more to do with consumer apathy towards the majority of models on sale now.
“The Apple Watch finally going on sale will be instrumental in taking the wearables market to the next level of growth. If successful, it’ll create a rising tide that will lift the whole market,” Wood says. “We’re still waiting to be told why we really need a smartwatch, and that applies to Apple as much as its challengers. If the Apple Watch fails, it’ll set the smartwatch industry back years.”
Migicovsky is confident that the Pebble Time will build on the triumphs of his previous models, and in the loyalty of the passionate community which funded the project in the first place.
“We have a much better idea now of how people use their Pebbles; after all, we have the most users and have been going the longest,” he says. “We are all about connecting with our community, who were the kind of people who were the first to try Netflix, or GPS navigation.”
If Pebble’s goal is to ride the wave of early adopters, Apple’s strategy is to lock users further into its products, which all work in harmony with each other, and only each other. This approach has been extremely successful so far – more than one billion iOS devices sold and counting – and analysts Gartners predicts 20m Apple Watches will be sold before the year’s end.
Every smartwatch revealed at MWC will have been influenced by Pebble and Apple in some way, and the war for our wrists between David and Goliath has never been more intense. But Migicovsky isn’t fazed.
“We’re up against the biggest company in the world, and we’re committed to that,” he says. “For something to take the place of a watch on your wrist, it has to be amazing.”
This article was written by Rhiannon Williams from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.