(MoneyWatch) There's lots of talk about smartwatches at the moment. Apple (AAPL) might sell 5 to 7 million iWatches in its first year -- or 10 times that number, depending on which analyst you listen to. And Samsung's entry into the market may have benefited from a more refined design, judging from the lukewarm consumer response to date.
Could there really be a market for wearable computing? Absolutely. But the hard part will be coming up with a device that people want to wear, and that will likely require clever innovation. For now, early signs suggest that the current batch of smartwatches aren't cutting it.
The growth of smartphone and tablet sales has shown that people like the idea of having access to computers wherever they happen to be. Wearable computers, whether smartwatches or, seem like a natural evolution.
However, what version would make sense -- not for a fanboy or tech head, but rather for ordinary people with less fervent attitudes about technology? And how will companies go from a small core of believers and early adopters to create something that will entice hundreds of millions of consumers to put their money down?
The reviews of Samsung's Galaxy Gear watch highlight just some of the difficulties companies face. David Pogue at the New York Times keyed in on a basic problem: "We just need somebody to find the right balance of labor between the watch and its companion device -- to figure out what a smartwatch should and shouldn't be."
Smartwatches are certain to evolve, just as other tech products have. Apple's iPhone was not the first smartphone, and the company studied previous iterations of the device sold by rivals. Originally, the iPhone was to use HTML5-based browser software, but made the critically important move to native apps. As the current iPhone 5s shows, it can take years to understand that even assumptions like the optimum size of a screen can be wrong. It could be that the industry needs Samsung's usual approach of releasing multiple styles of device and seeing which ones are favored by consumers.
There's not only a question of what the balance of function between two devices would be, but how much you can support on a wrist-mounted display before it becomes too large for everyday use. Maybe the idea of a wrist-mounted device is entirely the wrong approach.
As Piper Jaffray's chief Apple cheerleader Gene Munster learned, ask 799 U.S. Apple customers whether they would spend $350 on a watch connected to an iPhone and 80 percent say no, while 12 percent say maybe. That's maybe, not yes. Munster estimated that only 2 to 4 percent of iPhone users might buy the devices.
Not to sneeze at the number. If Apple weren't the company in question, it would be considered a hot prospect. But it's another sign that a smartwatch will not be an easy sell because people don't see themselves wanting to use one.
Maybe the display should be on goggles, like Google did. Perhaps computing will have to be embedded into clothing with a variety of ways to convey information to users, including sound and touch. What seems clear is that questioning the need for a smartwatch is an increasingly smart idea.