What will smartwatches look like and how will they function in 2020?
Today there are already hundreds of models from dozens of vendors, some focused on fashion, while others have a sleek, modern design and functions that include cameras, cellular or Wi-Fi wireless connections and more.
In five years, some industry insiders said they would like smartwatches to be as fully functioning as smartphones, only smaller and able to run apps as well as make calls and take photos.
Others said smartwatches will be restricted to a limited number of functions, while still tied to smartphones or other devices, in order to preserve battery power.
At International CES this week, there were many opinions on how smartwatches will evolve in the next five years. Some smartwatch makers expect their future devices will have more functions and internal components like a Near Field Communications chip for making mobile payments as the upcoming Apple Watch will do with Apple Pay.
Others disagree, at least for now, about adding in NFC or any other form of payments capability.
"We don't think [payment capability] is what a fashion-focused consumer wants," said Rob Pomponio, senior vice president for creative services at Guess Watches, a subsidiary of Timex.
Pomponio was on the show floor at CES showing off the Guess Connect smartwatch that uses technology from smartwatch maker Martian. The Guess Connect is expected to go on sale sometime in the fall for about $350. The Guess Connect can receive alerts and make calls with a Bluetooth connection to an Android or iOS smartphone, among other functions.
But it's most notable feature isn't smartwatch technology at all. "Our biggest feature is that the Connect looks like a watch," Pomponio said from the Martian booth on the show floor. Like the Mica watch supported by Intel, the focus of the Connect is to get users interested in smartwatches through their fashion sense.
Pomponio said a business executive in New York City might want an elegant-looking watch like the Connect to receive notifications and texts from a Bluetooth-connected smartphone. An OLED strip at the bottom of the watch face can be used to read texts, but quick responses can be made via voice-to-text to keep the operation hands-free.
Along with Guess Connect, there were watches from Martian and a dozen other lesser-known vendors in a special smartwatch section at CES. They included Beijing-based RibX Tech, with a smartwatch that uses a titanium alloy for ruggedness. Also smartwatch makers Burg, Cogito and Kronoz each showed several different models, including some with voice capabilities. Most will sell in the coming year for $100 to $300. Kronoz had an analog-faced smartwatch called the ZeClock that will sell for $99 later this month, and will include a microphone and other capabilities.
Kronoz might include new features like NFC in its smartwatches, but the NFC chip and related software will drive up costs, said Jerry Lam, the company's business operations director. "It is not important now to have payment capability, since we are making a highly affordable model," he said.
Fitbit, with its booth in another area near fitness wearables, showed its latest fitness bands, including the new $250 Surge with GPS capabilities. Asked if Fitbit plans to move its product line toward smartwatches with more advanced features, Ben Waller, product marketing coordinator, said the company plans to remain open to various advancements, including using the device for mobile payments.
It was clear that anyone showing smartwatches at CES wanted to see how well the highly anticipated Apple Watch, due later this year, will perform and how often its mobile payments capability, using NFC, will be used.
"I expect NFC in the Apple Watch for Apple Pay to be really big," said Kevin Harwood, a consulting architect at Mutual Mobile, a company that designs a range of mobile products. "So far Samsung has skipped over NFC in its smartwatches, but that may change as it watches Apple."
Samsung has already produced six smartwatches or related smart fitness bands, the latest being the Gear S.
Harwood was part of a panel that was asked to come up with a wish list of items for future smartwatches. All the panelists said fashion will continue to matter, but also on the list were smartwatches with longer battery life than just a few days as seen in current devices.
Others on the panel said they wanted the ability to connect a smartwatch via Bluetooth or other means not only to a smartphone but to other devices, including wearables and non-wearables, such as a laptop or desktop.
"I want the smartwatch of 2020 to have an amazing battery and loads of power," said Marwan Boustany, a senior analyst for IHS, a market research firm. "I would like to have a smartwatch that is basically a processing hub that can work with a flexible display."
As CES showed, just about anything is on the table for the next crop of smartwatches. As with smartphones, a lot can happen in five years in the life of a mobile technology.
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