Wearable Tech

Samsung missed the memo: Gear-type smartwatches aren't the future of wearables

Analog smartwatches like Fossil's newly unveiled Q range and the Withings Steel HR will be responsible for growth in the wearables space, say analysts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Time could be running out for Samsung's smartwatches.

The highlight of IFA 2016 for Samsung was the unveiling of its latest, the Gear S3. For the third successive year, Berlin has played host to such a launch, and with no new phones or tablets being revealed alongside it at the annual event, all eyes were on the shiny tech timepiece.

But unlike when the original Galaxy Gear debuted, smartwatches are now ten-a-penny, and the buzz has cooled. There have been few major improvements on the aspects that were most criticized in the first batch of smartwatches: namely bulky design and poor battery life. The Gear S3 is no exception -- there's no battery revolution, and it's also really, really big.

The good news is that people are still buying wearables, and the market should continue growing well through the coming years. Now for the bad news: Smartwatches built by tech companies like Samsung aren't likely to be driving that growth.

By 2020, wearable device sales will triple to 300 million units, with a value of $20 billion. But while fitness trackers and analog watches with built-in smart functions will fly off the shelves, the tech-heavy smartwatches of the world will languish unloved in stockrooms, predicts analyst firm CCS Insight.

"The initial hype around full-touch smartwatches has subsided," said wearables analyst George Jijiashvili in a statement. "Despite concerted efforts by numerous consumer electronics makers to break into the category, this type of smartwatch still feels like a compromise, a solution looking for a problem."

There's only one tech giant that might be immune from the effects of faltering interest in smartwatches, and you probably know its name by now. Apple continues to "deliver meaningful volumes" of its Apple Watch, said Jijiashvili, but he pointed out that "even Apple is struggling to grow sales."

To be fair to Samsung, it's not the only company that has fallen into the trap of making a big song and dance at IFA around a smartwatch that will probably only find favor with a few. Samsung wasn't immediately available to comment.

Asus also unveiled an updated smartwatch of its own. The ZenWatch 3 is a stylish timepiece that is both Asus' first bash at making a smartwatch with a round face and one of the first of its kind to pack Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor.

Prepare for the rise of the analog smartwatch, like the Steel HR by Withings.

Withings

On paper these two devices have very compelling looks and capabilities, but if CCS Insight is right, they're likely to lose out in sales to the likes of Fitbit, Fossil and Nokia-owned Withings. All three companies released new wearables at IFA, with Fossil and Withings combining classic watch design and mechanisms with fitness-tracking abilities.

Fitness trackers made by Fitbit, Xiaomi and others are already the biggest segment of the market, and sales are forecast to continue growing. But CCS Insight's research suggests that it will be analog smartwatches like Fossil's new Q series and the freshly unveiled Withings Steel HR that will see the biggest boom in popularity.

"Compared with full-touch smartwatches, these offer the convenience of a traditional watch but with added smart functionalities such as activity and sleep monitoring," said Jijiashvili. Crucially, he added, all of this can be delivered with a 6- to 12-month battery life.