Samsung's Galaxy Gear is the first of the major smartwatches expected this year, but it has a big problem. It can't possibly be a hit consumer gadget—not while it's tethered to Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 “phablet.” (Or worse, its newest Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet.)
Fortunately for users, Samsung says it plans to open up the Gear to other Samsung phones, and even those made by other companies. For now, though, would-be Gear users face some very limited options.
Why? Because the Note 3 is a smartphone so big that it defies normal definition. It has a 5.7-inch screen, comes with its own stylus (called the S Pen) and is generally awkward to handle. To put it as politely as possible, the Note 3 is not for everybody.
But to use the Gear, you currently have to pair it with the Note 3 to access cellular data, transfer messages and launch apps. Without a paired smartphone, the Gear isn't much more than a watch that can take pictures, track your exercise and run apps that don’t require a data connection.
So why limit the Gear to working with a huge phablet? Samsung didn't really have a good answer to that question, though it says it's working on a solution.
Not The Note!
Samsung says the Gear won’t always be exclusive to the Note 3, nor will it always tied exclusively to Samsung Galaxy smartphones. The company plans to eventually allow other smartphones to pair with the Gear, making it a much more universal and appealing device. Want to be able to pair your cool new HTC One or Moto X to the Gear? Maybe even the iPhone? Samsung says that's in the works.
Why can’t Galaxy Gear connect to other smartphones right now? It's not necessarily some sinister plot from Samsung to make you buy more of its gadgets (though that's likely part of it). The more straightforward answer lies in Bluetooth.
Samsung uses Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart) to pair the Note 3 and Galaxy Gear. The specific functionality that makes this particular Bluetooth connection work is found both in the latest version of Android (Jelly Bean 4.3) and in unique application programming interfaces that Samsung uses to launch apps from the Note 3 to Galaxy Gear.
According to Samsung director of product marketing Ryan Bidan, it's only a matter of time before Galaxy Gear is compatible with other devices.
“Right now the specific APIs and functionality are tied to the Galaxy Note 3. For obvious reasons we are looking for additional devices to support it,” Bidan said. “We will announce those when they come, but right now it is Galaxy Note 3 specific.”
Bidan said that it is only a matter of time before the Galaxy Gear is compatible with other smartphones as the engineers hurry to build interoperability with Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S4 and other Android devices, including those from rival manufacturers. (I was waving a Moto X at Bidan when I asked him about this.)
His response at greater length:
[I]t is just the timetable of bringing that software to other devices. It is nothing other than engineering work to do it.... Part of that functionality is tied to some updates in Android 4.3. So we are working to bring 4.3 to all those devices as well and so that is definitely one of the factors influencing adoption.
We were working to make sure that we had the right engineering to do it on the Galaxy Note 3. So, here we are at the launch of the Galaxy Note 3 and here is Galaxy Gear. There is more to come, for sure.
Lead image by Dan Rowinski for ReadWrite