The new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, part of an expanding new category of wearables, comes with a number of apps that could appeal to fitness enthusiasts. Coupled with similar products already announced by Sony and expected soon from Apple and Qualcomm, the Galaxy Gear might have a major impact on the mobile health app market, depending on how the technology evolves, observers say.
Among the 60 apps available for the Galaxy Gear, which ships Sept. 25 at a retail price of $299, are a step-counting accelerometer. Purchasers also get a customized Azumio app they can use to monitor their heart rate, measure their calorie output, and take pictures of the food they eat with the Gear's built-in camera.
When used with a mobile communications device, the smartwatch can be used to send e-mail, surf the Web and share information through social media. The latter feature could potentially be used with "gamification" apps that enable people to share with others their fitness achievements in running, walking or weight loss.
The Samsung smartwatch can be synchronized with the company's new Note 3 phablet but not yet with its Android smartphones. It won't be able to coordinate with any other company's smartphones, at least initially.
Josh Flood, an analyst with ABI Research, told InformationWeek Healthcare he was underwhelmed by the Galaxy Gear. He was disappointed that it didn't come with a flexible screen that could wrap around the wrist to make it more interactive. And while the Gear's camera makes it unique among smart watches, he can't figure out why someone would use that camera in preference to the one that comes with all smartphones.
Nevertheless, he said, if the Gear and other smartwatches take off, the sheer size of companies like Sony, Samsung and Apple would be "very concerning" to companies that making health tracking devices. "It's possible it will cannibalize the market for healthcare trackers," he said. "The question is how Samsung will market it and whether they're going to focus on the healthcare market. It was reported earlier this year that Apple plans to make a big push in the fitness area."
Sony, which will soon launch its second-generation smartwatch, said about 300 apps were available for the device, including some fitness software.
Malay Gandhi, chief strategy officer for RockHealth, a San Francisco-based accelerator of digital health startups, said that Samsung's smartwatch would not pose much competition to makers of fitness devices. "It isn't in a position to take a big chunk of the wearable market and it's obviously not a replacement for phones," he said.
As for the long-range prospects of the Gear and other smartwatches in healthcare, he said, "The real question is whether people like the wristband-phone combination or do they want to integrate that into one device."
One interesting contrast between that combination and the current generation of fitness trackers, such as the Jawbone UP wristband, the Nike Fuel Band and the Fitbit Flex, is that the latter aren't capable of getting a cellular connection wirelessly through a smartphone, Gandhi notes.
However, he pointed out, there are no apps for the Gear that are not also available in smartphone versions. "Samsung pulled some stuff they liked from the wearable space [to create the Gear] and then added in some third-party apps," he said.
It has been predicted that Samsung will ship 1.2 million smartwatches worldwide this year and 7 million in 2014. But whether this product and others like it will be a success depends on how the technology evolves, Gandhi said. The killer app for wearables won't be software but a platform that can be used by a wide variety of sensors, he predicted.
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