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Smartwatches: The next big thing or this year's fad?

commentary: A computer on the wrist has so far had a lukewarm reception from bleeding-edge buyers and reviewers. Sounds like just about every other major new product.

The Martian opts for style over computer design.
Sara Tew/CNET

When product designers at Martian Watches began development of their Martian Passport smartwatch, they made a risky decision to give the watch a traditional, stylish, and very analog look.

It's a design decision that, not surprisingly, has led the consumer-electronics crowd to ding Martian Watches and prompted the fashion-focused crowd to applaud the Irvine, Calif.-based company. It also captures the inherent challenge facing the "next big thing" some believe is coming to your wrist: Unlike a laptop computer or even a phone, a watch is a fashion statement. And for the tech crowd, a smartwatch -- well, it would be nice if it did more than help you use your phone.

If the smartwatch is going to be the next revolution in consumer electronics, it will need to balance those two very different needs. Last week, The New York Times' David Pogue wrote a roundup of smartwatches, with a conclusion that could best be summarized as "Meh, not yet." (CNET's Scott Stein gave the Martian Passport three out of five stars.) Pundits wonder if smartwatches are essentially a peripheral device to your smartphone, and consumers scratch their heads as to why exactly they'd need this sort of device.

Nevertheless, the negative reaction to the tech industry's buzz du jour sounds an awful lot like the lukewarm reaction to early smartphones, the negative reaction to early MP3 players, and even to tablets. Then along came the the iPod, quite a few decent smartphones, including the iPhone, and, yes, the iPad.

There's a saying in Silicon Valley: We overestimate what can happen in 3 years and underestimate what we can do in 10, and somewhere in the middle we'll probably find the truth about smartwatches. Researchers at the analyst firm ABI predicted last month that the market for wearable-computing products will grow from 52 million units shipping this year to 485 million units shipped by 2018. Smartwatches would be part of the total.

That said, who knows? Market forecasts five years out are about as reliable as Punxsutawney Phil. Traditional watches account for about $6 billion in annual sales in the United States, said Stephen Baker, vice president at the research firm NPD Group, and that means absolutely nothing when trying to gauge the potential for smartwatch sales.

"I think comparing the dumbwatch market to the smartwatch market is an exercise in uselessness," said Baker. It's difficult to say how much the smartwatch market could be worth, but if it's only $6 billion in the U.S., it's very unlikely Apple would take a run at it, as it is rumored to be doing, he added.

So what about Apple? No one at the company has actually said on-the-record that Apple is working on the fabled iWatch. But a string of leaks over the last month to a handful of influential media outlets would suggest something is in the works. And Apple's history of figuring out how to popularize niche products (as well as its knack for turning tech into a fashion statement) is reason enough to pay attention to what comes out of Cupertino.

Apple would jump into competition with companies as big as Sony and Garmin and as small as Martian, which offer watches that are a grab bag of features, from e-mail and phone alerts to health and fitness monitoring.

The rumored iWatch, as imagined by CNET's Sarah Tew and Christopher MacManus.

The Martian decision to go analog over digital was a conscious trade-off in the tech-versus-fashion discussion, said Pamela Niemi, Martian's director of marketing. In order to overcome the unfashionable clunkiness often seen in smartwatches, Martian limited the OLED display to a small, scrolling line at the bottom of the watch's face.

The company also had to overcome another issue: The type of person likely to buy bleeding-edge consumer electronics is also someone who has probably stopped wearing a watch since they can get the time on their smartphone. So how to appeal to them?

"Watches are kind of a retro thing for them," said Niemi, and Martian is banking on that retro hipster sensibility.

Retro may be nice, but a few other things have to happen before smartwatches can go mainstream. On Tuesday, CNET's Scott Stein wrote about the "Nine things the iWatch (or any other smartwatch) needs." His first demand: Better battery life. Many current smartwatches have a battery life of about eight hours.

But that can also be overcome without breakthrough technology, said Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Gartner.

"It's less the issue of battery life and more about teaching consumers to change expectations and behavior. It's wasn't long ago that consumers expected their phones to last several days on a charge," said Gartenberg. "Today, it's accepted that a full day is what most devices will get, and it's not uncommon behavior for users to 'top off' their device during the day."

Perhaps, but first consumers need to see an obvious utility with a new product before they'll accept they have to change their behavior.