Would You Wear a Smart Watch?

Five government CIOs discuss the recent release of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the tech giant's try at a smart watch.

by / October 22, 2013
Flickr/Kārlis Dambrāns

Pop culture has for decades framed the idea of a computer that can be worn on the wrist as the pinnacle of technological fantasy. As illustrated by new TV ads for Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, the smart watch has already been brought to life on screen many times -- in The Jetsons, Star Trek, Inspector Gadget, Dick Tracy and Knight Rider, to name a few incarnations. The Korean tech giant’s ad campaign has been successful, with one of the spots on YouTube recently reaching 9.4 million views in 12 days and achieving a 92 percent positive rating. Even if the product’s tagline wasn't explicitly mentioned in the ad, the point is unmistakable: After all these years, it’s finally real.

All this positive attention, however, doesn’t seem to be adding up to units sold. One popular comment on YouTube reads, “The best advertisement for the worst consumer product ever.” Calling the Galaxy Gear the “worst ever” is just the kind of harsh reactionary commentary typical of YouTube, but others agree with the sentiment. “Overpromise and underdeliver is one of the worst mistakes any business (or any person) can make to their reputation,” reads another highly rated comment.

Sony’s SmartWatch didn’t inspire poetry when it was released either, and with Apple’s smart watch on the way, it may soon become clear whether this is a case of Samsung making a mistake in execution, or if the concept was better suited for fictional worlds.

While the first generation of smart watches isn't perfect, the concept is solid, said IT analyst Rob Enderle. The trend in mobile phones is to go bigger, as seen with the success of tablets and devices like the Galaxy Note. Even the iPhone is falling behind a little with its once-large but now considered modest-size screen, Enderle said. “As you start getting into larger phones, it gets really awkward to yank the thing out and talk on it,” he said. “So with the watch, it becomes what you talk to, where you get your alerts and updates, and the phone stays in your purse or pocket or on your belt unless you really need to get down and do something that requires the big screen.”

Government Technology asked five public-sector CIOs what they think of Samsung’s new product, whether they would consider using it, and if the smart watch market has a future.

Louis Carr, CIO of Clark County, Nev.

The smart watch has a place in the world, Carr said, but the technology is still a little confusing. “I think it would be great for listening to MP3 files, Pandora, that sort of thing,” he said. “It will probably be good for instant messaging, Twitter, appointments and calendars, and alarms." However, for tasks like mapping and working on word processing and spreadsheets, a watch will probably be too small.

And how the watch's keyboard will work is also a mystery, Carr said. “If it’s linked to your smartphone via Bluetooth, that would give you a keyboard, but if you’re using your smartphone, why does it need the smart watch?”

It’s an interesting device, Carr said, but it doesn’t really do anything new. “The app drives the hardware,” he said. “What’s the killer application?”

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif.

is also a little confused – “baffled” actually was the word he used. “I was happy to get rid of my watch,” he said. “I love my smartphone. So, they want to put the watch back on me?”

Technology changes fast and there’s no telling whether this could eventually become popular, he said, but right now Reichental is not interested in the Gear. Despite the TV ad campaign, which Reichental said is great, the device ends up looking like a toy. Incidentally, in a TV ad campaign by Verizon that shows a family trick-or-treating, it’s the boy who wears the Galaxy Gear -- so maybe Samsung wants the device to be thought of as a toy.

In any case, Reichental said, whether this product takes off or not will come down to if marketers can convince the public there’s a demand for it. “Sometimes technology emerges and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s cool. That’s a game changer,’” he said, pointing to the introduction of GPS devices as an example of groundbreaking consumer technology. “I don’t think a lot of people are having the same reaction to this notion of a smart watch. It’s a product looking for a market, rather than the market demanding it.”

The product’s existence seems to be predicated on sentiment rather than demand, Reichental said. “It feels a little bit like the engineers who were moving with this are the folks who did grow up with Dick Tracy and Star Trek and thought that, ‘Yes, we’re going to have these phones on our wrist.’ And they almost feel an obligation to fulfill that vision.”

Lea Deesing, CIO of Riverside, Calif.

Responding via email from her iPad, Deesing gave the impression that among the CIOs interviewed, she's the most gadget-oriented. In fact, working as a network administrator during the 1990s, she wore a “pager watch” that could receive text messages. “I then tied this watch into our help desk system in that I received text messages on my watch when a user submitted an urgent request,” she said.

Deesing also said she is a big fan of Apple products, regularly using the iPad and an iPhone. “I'd definitely be interested in the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch if and when it interfaces with the iPhone,” she said. “I like the idea of a wearing a watch that has a camera, will read text messages to me, will tell me the weather and more.”

Jack Belcher, CIO of Arlington County, Va.

A regular user of the iPad mini and Amazon Kindle, Belcher said he isn’t really a big gadget guy – but he will use a new device if it proves it can add functionality to his life. The Galaxy Gear is a good concept, he said, but he’s not ready to buy one. “I like the approach. It’s easy to use, it’s Bluetooth connected to your phone and it creates a nice synergy,” he said. “Are they there yet? I’m not sure.”

Tablets like the Microsoft Surface are gaining in popularity, but even that product has not yet reached its potential nor exceeded the threshold required for him to buy one, Belcher said, having tested the device upon launch. For a product to interest him, it must add new functionality.

For example, Belcher said the iPad mini is great because it’s small enough to almost fit in a pocket and it can be used for note taking. “It’s a great tool because I can flip back and see the last time I was in a meeting, what was said. It’s helped me from an organizational standpoint to the point I don’t even carry a pen. I carry a stylus now, and if I have to sign a paper document, I have to go find a pen,” he said.

Bill Greeves, CIO of Wake County, N.C.

“The first thought I had when I heard about it, I was thinking about the watches that came out when I was in junior high school – the calculator watches. The uber geeky ones,” Greeves said. “I’m fine being labeled a geek, but it just doesn’t seem like it would do much for me.”

The device hasn’t yet demonstrated any unique or compelling value, he said. “It wouldn’t be something that would be at the top of my list for a long time unless I could get a better understanding of how that would be better than something in my pocket,” Greeves said, adding that he's a fan of Apple products. “Even if Apple put one out, I don’t think I would go out and get one. I’d have to really think about it and see what that’s going to do for me.”

Greeves said he does wear a watch at work, a Citizen Eco-Drive, but he considers it strictly a piece of jewelry. While the watch does all kinds of things, like tell the wind speed, he said he doesn’t even use it to check the time.

“I think it’s inevitable that devices are going to become more and more ingrained in the things we are already using,” Greeves said. But as for the Galaxy Gear, “there are probably practical purposes for it, but I don’t know.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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