If Samsung’s Making a Smartwatch, Here Are Its Strengths and Weaknesses

Instead of letting the rumor mill do the talking, a Samsung executive has come right out and said it: The company is building its own smartwatch to compete with whatever Apple might be working on.

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Albert Gea / Reuters

Instead of letting the rumor mill do the talking, a Samsung executive has come right out and said it: The company is building its own smartwatch to compete with whatever Apple might be working on.

“We’ve been preparing the watch product for so long,” Lee Young Hee, executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile business, told Bloomberg. “We are working very hard to get ready for it. We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them.”

Lee didn’t offer any specifics on the actual product, its price or a release date. We can only assume that it’ll behave  like other existing smartwatches, allowing users to glance at notifications and other bits of information.

Although we don’t know much about Samsung’s plans, there’s still plenty to think about based on what we do know about the company. Here’s what Samsung could bring to the table for smartwatches:

Samsung Owns Some Cool Display Tech. The company has its own flexible OLED display technology, called Youm, that it’s been showing off on the trade show circuit. A curved display could come in handy for a watch, since it could maximize screen area by bending around the wrist instead of sticking straight out. Rumor has it that Apple is considering curved displays for a smartwatch of its own, so Samsung could very well be doing the same.

Better Galaxy Phone Integration Is a Given. A common gripe with Pebble’s smartwatch is that interaction with Android phones seems a bit like a hack. You have to enable accessibility services on the phone to make it work, and Pebble must add support for any app that wants to send notifications to the watch. Samsung, being in control of its own software, could have these notifications built right in, with no setup required.

Samsung Is the Anti-Apple. If Apple does build a smartwatch that’s deeply integrated with the iPhone, it may be of limited use to Android phone owners. Samsung could easily step in and be the anti-Apple alternative, just as it’s done with its Galaxy phones. The company outspent Apple on marketing last year, and it’ll likely keep on spending to puff up the Galaxy brand and sell more products to existing customers — including smartwatches.

Of course, Samsung faces some challenges as well:

Samsung Has No App Store of Its Own. If Apple were to make a smartwatch, you could imagine how easy it would be for users to find supported apps. Apple could simply add an “iWatch” category to its App Store, and watch its huge community of app developers flock to it. Samsung doesn’t have the luxury of its own app store, as it relies on the Google Play Store for Android apps. The company will have to convince developers that there’s still a big market for its own smartwatch apps, even if there’s no easy way to find them in Google Play. This isn’t impossible — Samsung’s S Pen stylus on the Galaxy Note has decent third-party app support — but it’s more of an uphill battle. (CORRECTION: As several commenters have pointed out, Samsung does indeed have its own app store. It is not pre-installed on some U.S. phones and clearly plays second-fiddle to Google Play, so I still believe this remains a challenge for Samsung.)

S Voice Is No Siri. Let’s just assume for a moment that voice control would be a big part of any watch from Apple or Samsung. Right now, there’s no contest between Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s S Voice. Siri is much more solid in execution, and it’s also more functional, with the ability to hook into other services like OpenTable, Yelp and Fandango. Would Samsung tie its own smartwatch into Google Now and Google Search instead? It’s unlikely, as all signs point to Samsung distancing itself from Android and building out its own services — even ones that are currently inferior.

It’s Not Clear if Samsung Can Lead in a New Category. Samsung doesn’t have much of a track record for reinventing product categories, as Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Instead, Samsung’s strategy has been to go where Apple won’t — such as bigger phones, smaller tablets and stylus-driven software — while borrowing (stealing, arguably) the ideas that made its rival so successful. Apple’s critics like to say the company’s ideas are obvious, but as some pundits have noted, those very ideas once seemed unimaginable. The smartwatch will be a great test for that theory. It’ll be interesting to see if Samsung can strike first in a nascent category and still rival Apple’s work.