Closed Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch launch: as it happened

Samsung took to the stage in Berlin to become the first major smartphone maker to launch a smartwatch accessory, beating Apple, Google and other rivals to market, and hoping to recapture the innovation initiative in the process. Tim Bradshaw and Paul Taylor report from the “Unpacked Episode 2″ event.

Is this the dawn of the wearable computing era? After false starts from the Sony SmartWatch and Microsoft Spot Watch, Samsung hopes it has the product innovation, marketing might and consumer following to convince an intrigued but skeptical public that it needs a smart watch. Read Chris Nuttall’s analysis of the “smartwear” market from March while we wait for the event to begin.

Simon Mundy in the FT’s Seoul bureau provides some financial context for this launch:

On Wednesday, Samsung announced that it would hold a conference on November 6 to present details of its strategy to about 400 analysts and investors – the first such event since 2005, as the group looks to reassure a market that is increasingly dubious about its long-term growth prospects.

Top executives including Kwon Oh-hyun, chief executive, would attend the event to “explain about Samsung’s current business situation and its mid-to-long-term growth strategy and vision”, the company said.

Shares in Samsung have fallen by 13 per cent since early June, amid growing investor concern about falling margins in the global smartphone market – a sector that accounts for most of the company’s profits.

Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4, outdid its predecessors by selling 10m units in less than a month, helping the group to post record earnings of Won9.5tn ($8.7bn) in the second quarter of this year. But this fell short of analysts’ expectations, and the shares slumped 4 per cent on the preliminary earnings announcement in July.

After a soothing orchestral introduction, the Berlin event is just beginning, with excitable British television host Jason Bradbury taking to the stage. He’s both an “objective journalist” and the host, he says.

The event is being livestreamed to New York’s Times Square, where a Galaxy-capped crowd have gathered in the sunshine to watch the products be unveiled. This all-inclusive approach is a contrast to Apple’s more closed-door launch events – the next of which is coming next week.

President and CEO of IT and communications at Samsung Electronics, JK Shin is now on stage. “We are here to introduce the next evolution of the Galaxy experience,” he says. The first Galaxy Note came in 2011. “Our inspiration came from our customers – we listened to you. You said you wanted more options. You wanted bigger screens and better input capabilities.”

The Galaxy Note 3 has a larger screen, but slimmer and lighter. “It has heft but not weight. It makes a statement about choice, not confirming,” he says. The Note has better multitasking, he says, and improved mobile security.

JK Shin’s Galaxy Gear just received a text message – a fun way to introduce the product. “I believe it will be a new fashion item around the world,” he says. Voice control and text updates, it’s an accessory for the Galaxy mobiles that can make calls.

There’s also a new 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab “Our goal is not just to make great devices but to empower you, to enjoy and fulfi’l your busy life,” he says.

Now JK Shin has left the stage and we’ve got Samsung’s Dutch chief onstage, introducing a product demo video. “Everything begins with a pen – even the greatest masterpiece begins with a scribble,” says the female voiceover, talking about the Galaxy Note and its pen.

“When designing your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen,” says the voiceover – huh? The S-pen and the phablet format is Samsung’s biggest differentiator against Apple, so they’re really milking it with romantic videos right now.

The Galaxy Note 3 has a bigger 5.7-inch screen, than its predecessor, but is the same width, with a soft backcover in black, white and pink, plus nine more colour covers. Apple’s iPhone 5C, expected to be launched next week, will mark Apple’s first foray into technicolour with its smartphone – but the screen will be the same, compact 4-inch size. Apple executives have argued that this is better because you can hold the device in one hand, but Samsung thinks consumers will be excited by the Note’s two-handed, um, notetaking.

David Park, marketing manager at Samsung Electronics, is now explaining the new improved S-pen. “Air Command” allows the Note to be controlled by hovering the pen above the screen. Writing a phone number will allow it to be called with a tap of the “link to action” button.

Circle: capture and organise your content in one place in a “Scrapbook”. You draw a circle around whatever you want to clip from the web, a little like Evernote.

Very like Evernote, in fact… Whatever you save with S-Note is saved directly to Evernote and you get free Premium service for a year. Samsung has many such partnerships with independent apps and services bundled into its devices, with Dropbox being another prominent example.

More multitasking in the Galaxy Note 3: you can chat with two different friends at the same time, and slide messages between the two windows.
Intriguing idea: “Pen Window” lets you draw on the screen to bring up quick access to another app, which hovers above the window below. Like, um, Windows – but not something that’s usually associated with mobile devices. You access this is with the S-pen in three steps: “Dot, circle and box,” says Park.

The head of Samsung’s “think tank”, Pranav Mistry, is now taking to the stage. “Our time is a time for crossing boundaries,” he says, and here comes a demo of the Galaxy Gear: “Welcome to the future.” An instrument with simplicity on its face… and ease of glancability.” Stainless steel, but still lightweight, he says, and “engineered for all-day comfort”. The Gear comes in six colours.

It’s a touchscreen device: move between features with a swipe, and swipe down from the top to move backwards. “Gear takes the entirety of your digital world and places it right where you can see it with a simple glance,” he says, with notifications from the Galaxy phone appearing on the watch. With “smart relay”, an email you were reading on your Gear appears on the screen of your Note when you pull it out of your pocket.

Answer phone calls and messages from your watch. “Raise my hand to your ear and I’m ready to talk – yes that simple and that natural,” Mr Mistry says – this is the Dick Tracy vision in action.

Galaxy Gear has S-Voice to use voice commands to call friends, send text messages, set an alarm or check the weather. This is something the Pebble and most other startup smartwatches lack, although the Martian Watch did allow iPhone users to communicate with Siri from its wrist.

“Memographer”: an outward facing camera to capture memories. Access the camera with a swipe down on the screen. A point-and-shoot camera requires multiple steps, says Mistry, but Galaxy Gear is much faster. Sharing is built-in – “I can take a picture and send to my friends in seconds.”

There are also “augmented reality” features to the Gear and the watch can run its own apps – examples includ Path, Banjo, Phigolg and Life360, specifically designed for the Gear app store

The Gear has a gyroscope and accelerometer so it can respond to gestures and movements, and a pedometer to track workouts.

Here’s the big one – Samsung says the Gear will last 25 hours – “more than a day”. But it doesn’t mention what sort of a battery drain the device might cause on the smartphone it’s connected to, which was a problem in some of the earlier smart watches I have tried.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear will cost $299 – read the FT’s full story here

The Galaxy Gear’s one-day battery life compares poorly with the years that a regular watch might last, of course, and adds another device for consumers to charge up every night. But many have already been trained to do that, and unlike most of its competitors, Samsung’s smart watch has a high-res, full colour screen.

At the same time as Samsung’s event, mobile chipmaker Qualcomm is hosting a surprise smart watch launch of its own in San Diego. The “Toq” – presumably a play on tick-tock? – is being pitched as a demonstration of what’s possible from the technology, rather than a mass-market product. But its week-long battery life puts the Gear in the shade, albeit with a different kind of screen. Qualcomm’s Mirasol display combines e-ink and colour LCD. The Toq will also cost around $300.

Samsung’s live show has wrapped up but we’ll continue bringing you reaction to the Galaxy Gear, as it comes in.

Forrester’s wearables analyst, Sarah Rotman-Epps, says the Galaxy Gear is a “sci-fi anachronism”:

a $299 smartwatch that improves upon the decade of smartwatches that came before it (Pebble, Sony, Metawatch, Microsoft SPOT) but still doesn’t give consumers a convincing reason to buy one…

the watch gets only one day of battery life, which means you have to charge it nightly like you do your phone (and having tested various wearables that have this requirement, it means you are much less likely to get into the habit of wearing it than a wearable with 10-day battery life like the Fitbit Flex)

Samsung’s motivation for launching the Gear is straightforward: As smartphone growth slows, Samsung (and other consumer electronics makers) seek new sources of growth. We see the body as the next frontier for personal computing. And the wrist is the one of the most accepted places on the body for consumers to wear a sensor device…

So why are we so skeptical of Samsung’s smartwatch? It’s nothing against Samsung. It’s that there are very few functions you could perform better on a watch than on a phone.

Samsung is pursuing a spaghetti-on-the-wall product strategy: Launch a smartwatch and maybe it will stick.

What sort of apps will people want to use on a watch?
Pocket, the read-it-later app for mobile devices, is “officially coming to the wrist”, according to a press release that just landed in my inbox:

“Pocket for Samsung Galaxy Gear” is an innovative way get instant access to all save-for-later articles without having to pull your phone out of your pocket. When on the go, and using Pocket’s “Listen” feature, articles will be read out loud while leaving their hands free.

Read more on the Pocket blog.

Here’s Path’s logic for bringing its mobile-centric social network to the smart watch, after previously building a Google Glass app:

We decided to focus on building for mobile specifically because of the platform’s inherent ubiquity—our phone is usually never further than our pocket. This means less time sharing, and more time spent in the moment with those that matter most.

Path on the Samsung Galaxy Gear enables users to share photos, give feedback to their friends and family, and post their location in seconds. Path users on the wearable can also receive notifications from the most important people in their lives, instantly.

More from Path on its blog.

Full tech specs for the Galaxy Gear:
800 MHz processor
Display: 1.63 inch (41.4mm) Super AMOLED (320 x 320)
Camera: 1.9 Megapixel BSI Sensor, Auto Focus Camera / Sound & Shot
Bluetooth v 4.0 + BLE [Low Energy]
4GB Internal memory + 512 MB (RAM)
Size: 36.8 x 56.6 x 11.1 mm, 73.8g
Li-ion 315mAh battery

Nuance Communications, which forms part of Siri and other virtual assistants, is powering Samsung’s S-voice control in the Galaxy Gear. “With a small screen, you can’t rely on a user interaction model that was developed for a smartphone or a personal computer,” Nuance marketing chief Peter Mahoney writes in a blogpost on wearables and the context-aware future of “intelligent systems”.

The general tone of analyst feedback on the Galaxy Gear is not overwhelmingly positive, to say the least, judging from posts I’ve seen on Twitter.

Tech blog Engadget reports from Berlin that the Galaxy Gear will only work with a small number of Samsung devices at the moment:

[Gear] will only pair with Galaxy devices running Android version 4.3 — for the time being, that restricts use to the smartphone and tablet announced today, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 and the refreshed Note 10.1, though the next version of Jelly Bean may roll out to the GS4 later this year.

That restricts the addressable market for the Gear – but the decision to tie it to Samsung devices may also be part of an attempt to create ecosystem lock-in, much as Apple does with iTunes, iCloud and the App Store.

The FT’s Paul Taylor was at the parallel event in New York and got the chance to try out the Galaxy Gear. He says:

I was quite impressed actually. The screen is very clear bright and responsive and the Bluetooth link to the Note 3 seemed to work well.

I would describe it as a bit old-school in design – it reminded me of Microsoft’s Spot watch, though the screen is much better and hopefully the battery life will be too.

In terms of feel and size, it is chunky…somewhat bigger than a big men’s sports watch but lighter in weight. I’m not sure it will appeal to women much in its present form. I found the plastic strap a bit sweaty, too.

It’s really a screen on your wrist… an extension rather than a standalone and I think it is too pricey at $299.

We’ll bring you a fuller review soon.

Gizmodo isn’t too sure about the Gear in its first try:

Overall, Galaxy Gear feels kind of awkward both to wear (it’s chunky) and to use (it’s unnatural, although that’s to be expected since it’s a new type of input). All that could be worth it, though, the fitness apps (which we weren’t able to test) are killer, and if moving between your Galaxy smartphone and your watch are as seamless as it seemed to be in our test.

The Verge likes the camera’s picture quality but says the UI is clunky:

There are a couple of significant downsides that temper my enthusiasm for the new Gear. First and foremost is the speed and intuitiveness of the user interface — or rather, the lack thereof. There’s a tangible lag to anything you do with the Gear, while the swipe gestures are hard to figure out and do different things depending on where you are in the menus.

But CNET’s reviewer says he’s “won over”:

I was charmed by the combination of simplicity with function: it’s incredibly easy to control, yet does enough useful things to have this gadget fan convinced I need it. Weighing in at 73.8g, it’s a lot less chunky than I expected — although you may feel differently if your wrists are daintier than mine — and will in fact feel practically slimline to anyone who’s ever worn a musclebound exercise tracker like a Nike+ or Adidas MiCoach sporty watch.

It’s interesting to see so many divergent opinions about the Galaxy Gear – and the smart watch category in general. It reminds me of the skepticism when the iPad first came out… Whether it will be as successful or disruptive as that is anyone’s guess at this point.

That concludes today’s live blog… Stay tuned to for more analysis of the wearables market and Paul Taylor’s full review of the Galaxy Gear.