The Samsung Gear S smartwatch, which can make phone calls independent of a nearby smartphone, hits all four major wireless network operators in the U.S. this week. The device is an interesting step forward for connected wearables, but it has some serious limitations that lower its value as a target for developers.
Samsung debuted the Gear S earlier this year. Its primary feature is cellular connectivity. The Gear S represents the Dick Tracy dream come true. With the Gear S, you can make and receive phone calls, as well as send and receive text messages even if your smartphone is miles away. It runs on 2G/3G cellular networks and requires its own service plan. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are asking for $10 per month to use the Gear S on their networks, provided you're adding it to an existing smartphone service plan. Of course, the Gear S can connect to a smartphone, too, via Bluetooth. The device has on board smart controllers that know when to use a nearby smartphone for making calls, rather than its own radio. It also has independent GPS functionality for routing directions, but will deliver rich notifications from your smartphone when the two are close to each other.
As far as the hardware itself is concerned, the Gear S is a sexy little thing. It boasts a large, curved AMOLED touch screen that measures 2.0 inches and includes 480 x 320 pixels. That resolution matches some smartphones. A dual-core 1.0 GHz processor is paired with 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of storage and a 300 mAh battery good for two days of use. The Gear S has its own music player, which means you can listen on the go without towing your smartphone along.
So far, it sounds compelling right? Wrong.
The Gear S uses Samsung's Linux-based Tizen operating system. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the operating system itself. It is intuitive and feature-rich, and has a full set of SDKs and APIs for creating watch-based apps. The problem is Tizen's reach and Samsung's commitment to it. Samsung has been developing Tizen for years. The goal is to provide Samsung with an alternative platform to Google's Android operating system. Nearly all of Samsung's success over the past few years can be attributed to Android and not its own efforts, so it's hard to see why the company would turn on the platform that helped it destroy the competition. Tizen may be a fine platform for which to write apps, but its longevity in the market is anything but assured.
This week, Google plans to push anew its Android platform. Android 5.0 Lollipop will begin to reach handsets and tablets, and a range of products — including smartwatches based on Android Wear — will suddenly have new powers and capabilities. Android Wear, while still in its infancy, represents a much better opportunity for developers. With deeper hooks into Android 5.0 Lollipop and a dedicated section of the Google Play Store, apps for Android Wear have far greater visibility and reach.