Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) could be about to unveil yet another smartwatch, according to The Wall Street Journal. That may sound inconsequential, given that its prior watches haven't sold particularly well, but this new device could completely revolutionize the smartphone landscape.
A smartphone that isn't a smartphone
When is a smartphone not a smartphone? When it's a watch. Samsung's next smartwatch is said to double as a smartphone, offering both cellular connectivity and Internet access.
This stands in sharp contrast to its prior Gear watches, and indeed all smartwatches thus far released. As they currently exist, smartwatches serve to simply extend a user's smartphone -- allowing them to check text messages or view their email without pulling their handset out of their pocket.
In other words, they don't really give their owners any utility outside of convenience (they don't do anything that a smartphone can't already do), which may be why they haven't really taken off. Last year, according to Strategy Analytics, just 2 million smartwatches were shipped globally -- a drop in the bucket compared to smartphones, which now see annual sales in excess of 1 billion units.
A watch to replace your phone
Samsung's next Gear won't be so much a smartwatch as a tiny, wrist-mounted smartphone. The advantages to such a device are obvious -- all the convenience of a smartwatch, no need to carry around a phone. Of course, there are plenty of challenges -- how does one type on a tiny screen? -- but start-ups like Minuum are committed to solving them.
Although Apple is expected to unveil a smartwatch of its own sometime in the near future, the device is rumored to be more health monitor than iPhone killer. Samsung's oversized phablets were able to attract certain consumers who found iPhones too small: its watch could attract those who think the iPhone is too big.
It won't run Android
Google, too, could be threatened by Samsung's device, as it won't run Android. Although Samsung's popular Galaxy phones are powered by Android, its recently released smartwatches are not. Rather, they run Tizen, Samsung's own proprietary operating system.
Samsung has been keeping Tizen alive for years, and has said it would eventually release a Tizen-powered smartphone. Most observers, however, have put little stock in Tizen's chances.
With such large installed bases, iOS and Android continue to be favored by developers. Operating systems that have attempted to crack this duopoly -- Windows Phone and BB10 -- have suffered from a tremendous lack of apps.
Tizen faces a similar problem, but the hardware it's being delivered on may be enough of a differentiator. Apple and Google were able to devastate the once-dominant Windows monopoly largely as a byproduct of hardware -- Windows simply wasn't suited for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Will the move to watches produce a similar effect?
2014's most revolutionary device?
It's too early to say for sure, but Samsung's new watch could prove revolutionary. I, for one, would prefer the combination of an independent smartwatch and tethered tablet, and I don't think I'm alone. Of course, Samsung will need to prove it can solve basic problems like battery life and typing, in addition to winning mobile developers over to Tizen.
But Samsung, long derided for copying the work of others, could be about to deliver a truly revolutionary product, perhaps the first serious challenge Apple and Google's mobile duopoly has so far seen.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.