We're stood at the foothills of a very large and formidable mountain that has the perfect smartwatch at its peak. It's still very early, not everyone's sure of their footing or the right course to take, but we are all instinctively drawn toward that pinnacle. The thing is, even with all the months and maybe years standing between humanity and its ideal wrist gadget, the winners of the race are already known. Google and Apple won.
Attempts at standalone smartwatches seem to resurface every few years. There was Microsoft's SPOT, the LG GD910 Watch Phone, and the Meta Watch — to name just three in the past decade — and none of them ever amounted to anything more than an intriguing bulletpoint in the history of personal electronics. Maybe you might have passed by one on your way to buying the latest and greatest new smartphone. It's actually the evolution of smartphones into the primary computer for many people that has now created the opportunity for smartwatches to flourish.
The challenges of miniaturizing displays, processors, and battery technology to the size of a watch are still present, but connecting that watch to a smartphone can offload some of its requirements and make the thing strapped to your wrist more bearable to wear and attractive to use. It also plugs the smartwatch into something critically important: an ecosystem of supportive hardware vendors and willing software developers. They are the ones who can drive a product category out of niche status and into the hands of mainstream consumers, but they demand some certainty that their investment of time and resources won't go to waste. That assurance comes from knowing that the connected smartphone is running the right operating system.
Yesterday's Apple Watch launch spoke glowingly of the "seamless" integration between the wearable device and the iPhone. Similarly, when it introduced its ZenWatch at IFA, Asus said that the watch works brilliantly with its Zen UI on Android smartphones. Both are just positive spins on the fact that an Apple Watch or an Android Wear device without a smartphone attached to it is not a terribly useful thing to have. Most of them don't even display the time all the time, making them poor substitutes for watches.
Seamless synergy between smartphone and wrist isn't good news for everyone
The close working relationship between smartwatch and smartphone ties down user choice in another way. If you really fancy the look of the Moto 360, you'll want to combine it with an Android handset to make the most of Google's ecosystem. The same is true of the Apple Watch and iPhone: they'll work great together and fall apart when they are, well, apart. Windows Phone and BlackBerry users aren't being served by these devices at all.
Wearables are perceived as the next frontier in consumer electronics, both because of new technological advancements and because of the rich potential to combine them with the smartphones that hundreds of millions of people already own. And because the vast majority of those users are already on either Apple or Google's mobile platforms, it only makes sense for development efforts to be focused on those two juggernauts. It's not dissimilar to how things panned out in the tablet market. Though they took different paths to their predominance, both Apple and Google relied on the strength of their smartphone software and ecosystems to drive the development of their tablet offerings. Compare them to BlackBerry's disastrous PlayBook tablet, which lacked such basic functionality as a native email client, or HP's beautiful but inadequately supported WebOS operating system and TouchPad devices. Microsoft's Windows is the only tablet alternative precisely because it's able to lean on the influence of its own ecosystem.
The Apple Watch and Android Wear at least guarantee a wide audience for any new products, whether they be hardware of software. Sony recognized this and abandoned four generations of its own smartwatch OS to join the ranks of Android Wear purveyors — aligning itself in direct competition with LG, Samsung, Motorola, and Asus, plus probably HTC and everyone else currently making Android smartphones. If even Sony, with all its resources, cannot strike out on its own, what hope is there for a third alternative beyond Android Wear and Apple's Watch?
Nothing's more attractive to ecosystem builders than an already thriving ecosystem
Facebook tried to take over an entire smartphone with the HTC First and failed dismally. Amazon is currently in the process of learning the same bitter lessons with its own Fire Phone, and BlackBerry is too busy issuing weird new phones to look to other device categories. Microsoft is apparently working on making Windows wearable, though its rumored device will be a fitness-focused band rather than an out-and-out smartwatch. Almost everyone is thus evading a direct confrontation with the duopoly of Apple and Google.
The only serious holdout may be Samsung, whose Tizen-powered smartwatches (like the new Gear S) could lie within a one-company ecosystem by sheer force of corporate muscle alone. Incumbent wearable leaders like Pebble, Jawbone, and Fitbit are wisely looking to embrace and work alongside the incoming wave of smartwatches rather than fight them directly. With longer battery life, cheaper prices, and lighter form factors, they have easy ways to differentiate themselves and survive as complementary products. Apple doesn't care to fight for sales of devices with a low profit margin, and the Android Wear watches now on sale are comparatively expensive even while their makers are doing little more than breaking even.
The Pebble will continue to be a reasonable option while the Wear and Watch app stores are still maturing, however eventually it too will be surpassed by the greater variety of things you can achieve with a color display and gigabytes of memory. The smartwatches we are seeing today are still very raw, but they have already shown enough flashes of potential to hint at their widespread appeal once the current shortcomings have been ironed out.
There are still many unknown and as yet undetermined aspects of how (and why) smartwatches will be used in the future. Two things appear inevitable, however. One is that we will climb this mountain, out of curiosity as much as anything else, and the other is that we'll probably do it with smartwatches acting as companions to phones rather than as autonomous devices. As things stand today, Apple and Google look set to extend their dominance in smartphones to smartwatches without any serious contestation from the rest of the tech world.