“Why don’t we take you into the war room?”
Dennis Miloseski leads me into a small conference room with hundreds of images tacked on the walls, mostly sketches of thin, hollow cylinders, but also a smattering of pictures–a beautiful woman, a delicate silver bangle. Some of the drawings have functions written above them in block letters–HAPTIC FEEDBACK, one says–along with dozens of red and green stickers to indicate whether those ideas have been abandoned or embraced. On a central table, there are maybe 50 models made out of cardboard, plastic, and metal neatly lined up next to a tangle of circuit boards.
The finished product sits on Miloseski’s right wrist, a gorgeous watch that features a slender, curved screen. The $199 device, which went on sale in April, tracks his heart rate and movement during the day and his sleep patterns at night, while allowing him to see incoming emails and texts without taking out his phone. He unsnaps it and hands it to me, proudly pointing to a tiny series of numbers printed on the watch face: 2 of 70. No. 1 is apparently somewhere in Korea. “This was the first batch that came off the assembly line,” he says. “We wanted to create that feeling of Wow, I haven’t seen that before.”
Miloseski and a team of 100 or so industrial designers, software engineers, and user experience specialists invented, manufactured, and shipped this smartwatch to consumers in just 12 months. Unlike the other wearable computers that have been released so far, the watch is not a clunky, overwrought attempt to put a cell phone on your wrist. It has no apps, it can’t make calls, and its battery doesn’t need to be charged every day. You look at it, slide one on your own wrist, and are tempted to say that this is what Apple would make if Apple made a smartwatch. Here’s the funny thing: Miloseski works for Samsung, Apple’s archrival and a company best known for copying the iPhone and making perfectly good microwave ovens. The smartwatch we’ve been ogling is the Gear Fit, and it represents why Samsung Mobile CEO J.K. Shin hired Miloseski in late 2012 to create a new innovation lab in downtown San Francisco. “This is what it means to be the new Samsung,” Miloseski tells me as he shows me around Samsung Design America’s airy headquarters. “We want to create categories of products that don’t exist yet.”
Designing something that the world doesn’t yet know it wants is among the most difficult challenges in business. It’s an especially hard problem at a company like Samsung, which rose to prominence by identifying successful products and refashioning them at lower cost or with more features. The so-called fast-follower strategy has been controversial, to say the least, and it reached its apotheosis as the Korean electronic giant’s smartphone business became wildly profitable and the world leader in sales volume. But Samsung now faces pressure from low-cost Chinese competitors such as Xiaomi that undercut it on price, while Apple continues to dominate the high end of the market and encroach upon Samsung’s turf in Asia. This is why Samsung’s operating profits have declined three quarters in a row.
Rather than passively accept this squeeze, Samsung is trying to transform itself into an innovator. That’s what persuaded Miloseski, who previously ran design at Google‘s special projects division, to come on board. “I really admired Samsung’s willingness to take on big things and move fast,” he says. “But from the outside looking in, you always wondered when it would start investing in design and disruption.”
Just as Apple’s mystique is very much tied to how it created genre-defining music players, smartphones, and tablets, Shin and Miloseski are betting on wearables to give Samsung a boost. “Samsung is at the forefront of this industry,” says Dan Harden, cofounder of Whipsaw, the design and engineering firm that helped build the Nike FuelBand. “They’re releasing something interesting every quarter. They’re experimenting with mass products. That shows leadership.”
Samsung’s previous U.S. design operation, which had been based in Los Angeles and which shut down to make way for Miloseski’s new studio, had operated more or less like an independent consultancy. “They had a sheet of paper that said, ‘Here are the projects that we want you to take a look at,’ ” Miloseski explains. “The first thing I did was say, ‘We’ll let you know what we think we should be working on.’ ”
Miloseski has hired a number of key lieutenants who have absorbed some of Apple’s design ethos during their careers. Howard Nuk started his professional life as an industrial designer at Frog, working under longtime Apple designer Hartmut Esslinger. Nuk later worked at Ammunition, the studio founded by former Apple industrial design chief Robert Brunner. Director of engineering Nathan Folkman came from Path, the well-designed (albeit little-used) app created by former Apple marketer Dave Morin. “We’ve definitely all had overlap with that company,” says Nuk, following an unspoken rule at Samsung: Do not under any circumstances mention a certain fruit-named company based in Cupertino.
Miloseski had only been in his job a few months and was still building his team when there were faint murmurings of something new from that fruit company. “We see great opportunities in front of us,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told investors during a conference call in April 2013. Cook promised new software, better hardware distribution, and, most intriguingly, “the potential of exciting new product categories.” With that, the rumor mill spun.
Miloseski tried not to think about Apple–or any other competitor–as he went looking for categories that Samsung might throw itself into. He commissioned and reviewed a series of usability studies that tracked people’s smartphone habits, discovering that although most of us are smartphone addicts, checking our devices about 150 times a day, most of the time we’re simply taking a quick peek at the screens and putting them back in our pockets and purses. “The reason users were pulling their phones out were these quick, glanceable experiences,” he says. “That made us very interested in the wearable space.”
Wearable computers, Miloseski reasoned, represented an opportunity to address the fact that smartphones have, in short order, pretty much ruined certain pleasurable aspects of human life, such as having the undivided attention of your loved one or being able to stroll outdoors without having to think about the great deal on canister vacuum cleaners that just landed in your inbox. A good wearable could give you easy access to important emails while allowing you to ignore the junk.
There were already early wearables on the market: Nike’s FuelBand and some other fitness trackers; early development versions of Google Glass; and Samsung’s designed-in-Korea Galaxy Gear, which debuted in September 2013 and let users make and receive calls on their wrist like some Starfleet admiral, as well as run apps and shoot high-definition video. None of them had caught on. Glass was emblematic of an approach that Miloseski calls “full cyborg,” and the FuelBand, which was more of a branding success than a financial one, was so geeky that, in another set of studies he conducted, “When a woman would go out at night, she’d pull it off her wrist.” Miloseski declines to say much about Samsung’s first wearable, which is probably for the best. The device had been so crammed with features that its battery life and processing speed suffered, and sales were reportedly anemic, with a 30% return rate for the few devices that were purchased. One review concluded that “trying to please all tastes has resulted in a predictably charmless and soulless product.”
Miloseski’s conclusion: A successful wearable would have to be focused, and a fitness wristband was an obvious choice since there was already a sizable market for sports watches. It would also have to be fashionable, the kind of thing that a woman would keep on her wrist at night or that a man would wear with the sort of pride Miloseski, a midwesterner with a middle linebacker’s build, displays for the chronograph on his left wrist. (Curiously, both Miloseski and Apple design chief Jonathan Ive wear chronographs that they’ve helped personalize. Miloseski’s is a chunky Breitling for Bentley sport watch, but he replaced the stock metal band with a handmade leather strap. Ive wears a Jaeger-LeCoultre that he and his pal Marc Newson designed for the Product Red charity and which sold at auction for $365,000.)
Miloseski gave the new project a code name, Wingtip, after the classic men’s shoe design and also “to push the team to think about a fashion-forward approach to technology.”
“You know, I wear this,” Cook began, showing off a Nike FuelBand at a conference in May 2013. He praised the device but pointed out that, like all of the wearables already on the market, its audience was limited. “There’s nothing that’s going to convince a kid who has never worn glasses or a band or a watch or whatever to wear one–or at least I haven’t seen it,” he said. “So I think there are lots of things to solve in this space, but it’s an area where it’s ripe for exploration.”
An area ripe for exploration. That summer, according to reports, a top-secret wearables team in Cupertino– personally overseen by Ive himself–began staffing up. (Apple famously disdains market research, but there’s evidence that this is something of a pose. Ive supposedly ordered boxes of sports watches, and the company’s patent litigation against Samsung revealed evidence that Apple had done some competitive analysis.) Apple poached engineers from medical device companies and executives from the top ranks of the apparel industry, including former Yves Saint Laurent chief Paul Deneve and Ben Shaffer, the head of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. In countries such as Japan and Russia, the company quietly filed for trademark protection of the phrase “iWatch.”
Some bloggers, including tireless Apple polisher John Gruber, suggested that these leaks might be a feint. Perhaps Cook had something even more fabulous than a mere watch up his sleeve. “If Apple ships [the iWatch],” he wrote, “it will look and work like no other. Then, mysteriously, the next round of watches from all the other companies will somehow wind up looking like slightly clunkier versions of Apple’s.”
Miloseski and Nuk spent much of 2013 worrying about the clunkiness problem. “We went through hundreds of these printouts to try to find the perfect ratio between the screen width and the band,” Miloseski says as he shows me the closet where Samsung Design America keeps its 3-D printer. He grabs a handful of nearly identical plastic models. “The challenge in the early days was, ‘What would it mean to build a technology product that became part of your wardrobe, that became part of you, almost?’ ”
That question inspired the Fit’s most significant achievement as industrial design: its curved screen. The swooping-form factor “was defined from the wrist,” Nuk says. “Our bodies are round, so let’s make the screen curved.” And also, he adds, as he slides his Gear Fit under the cuff of a dress shirt, “If it were straight, it would catch on things.”
At the time, a curved screen had never been used in a mass-technology product. (Samsung, Sony, and a number of other companies introduced curved TVs in 2013, though at a much higher price point.) To make it work, Samsung also had to design a curved battery to fit underneath it. There was much debate–and hundreds of models made in service of that debate–about whether Wingtip should be a removable pod that could fit in a wristband or a single integrated bracelet like the FuelBand or Jawbone’s Up. The pod won out because it was simpler to manufacture and because it could be worn with a variety of wristbands. “It gave us that fashionable approach–you could use it with a leather strap or a hard shell, like a woman’s bangle,” Miloseski says.
User experience designers created sketches of what the software might look like, glued them onto foam models, and then handed them to testers to “figure out how much information was enough,” Miloseski says. Rather than design a watch that would run full-blown apps, he had his team devise its own operating system that allows the Fit to receive notifications from a phone and lets a user quickly respond with a preset, customizable message–for instance, “I’ll call you later.” The approach saved battery life and seemed to work with the device’s screen real estate.
Some more radical notions were tried and scrapped. In the war room, Johan Olsson, a Samsung engineer, shows me an early prototype of the Fit with four vibrating motors attached at various points. The idea, he explains, was that different messages could have different vibrations. A text from your boss might simply tickle the inside of your wrist while one from your kid might vibrate in a circular pattern. “Can we create a new language?” Olsson wondered. Ultimately, Miloseski killed the feature after he concluded that the motors would be both too expensive and power sapping.
Just as Miloseski and Nuk finalized their design in early 2014, iWatch speculation soared. “What if Apple’s iWatch isn’t an iWatch at all?” Charlie Sorrel of the news site Cult of Mac wondered, seemingly without irony. He punctuated this great existential query–predicated on the idea that perhaps Apple wasn’t developing hardware for wearables but simply a software protocol–with the admission that this thought was “based on an idea that came to me in the bath last night.” Blogger Gruber, joining in the nonprediction prediction fun, declared the current crop of wearables, “dead on arrival, going nowhere. . . . If Apple has something wrist-wearable to show this fall, it won’t resemble these things at all.”
Into this maelstrom Samsung unveiled the Gear Fit in February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona alongside a bevy of other Samsung devices–its new Galaxy S5 smartphone and two other smartwatches, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, both of which were developed in Korea and which, like most Samsung products, were crammed with features. The Fit upstaged the entire field, winning the show’s award for Best New Mobile Handset, Device or Tablet.
When the Fit went on sale two months later, it sold out its initial run, reportedly more than 200,000 units, in just 10 days. One reviewer proclaimed it “our best hope for wearables to date.” The early start was impressive but also a long way from the tens of million of units Miloseski says Samsung needs to sell for the product to be truly considered a success.
Our best hope for wearables to date. The subtext of such faint praise was the sweaty, building anticipation for Apple’s iWatch. In late June, Reuters reported that the Taiwanese supplier Quanta was about to begin production of a watch with a 2.5-inch curved display and a heart-rate monitor. In other words, something that certainly sounded a lot like the product Miloseski and his team had shipped a couple of months earlier. No one acknowledged that inconvenient truth.
The overzealous analysts who have been hounding Cook to debut a new product category since he took over as CEO three years ago said Apple would sell as many as 60 million iWatches in the first 12 months, a number that’s patently bonkers. Even reality-based observers seem to agree that Apple could sell a lot of smartwatches at some point in the near future. “There’s been a pattern throughout history where computers have gotten smaller and smaller,” says independent analyst Horace Dediu. “The next dot would be something wearable, an intimate computer.”
I spent a few weeks this summer wearing the Fit, and it is, without question, a triumph of industrial design. It looks great. But it’s also why this business of inventing something we don’t yet know we want, particularly for something so intimate as a wearable, is so damn hard.
I am a geek and a pretty serious runner, and my struggle wasn’t about whether I’d wear the Fit during an evening out but rather why I should put it on each morning. I don’t really care about counting my steps, I didn’t want my wrist to buzz with every email or text, and I certainly didn’t feel, as Miloseski grandiloquently puts it, “a new emotional experience with a wearable device.“
The best case for Miloseski and Samsung rests on the fact that truly disruptive products are often initially dismissed as inadequate. We look at the iPhone 5S in our hand and forget that just seven years ago many folks derided the first iPhone as too expensive for consumers and not powerful enough for business users.
Miloseski’s team has been producing software updates that will allow the Fit to integrate more closely with smartphone applications. “You’ll see the lines blur” between apps and wearables, says Nathan Folkman, the engineering director. For instance, a streaming music app might be able to recommend a song based on the intensity of your workout, or an email app might stop showing you work-related messages if your stress levels appear to spike.
The worst-case scenario–for both Miloseski and Ive–is that the hurdle in creating the first great wearable will prove much higher than it was for phones. There are as many body types and sizes as there are personal tastes. Some people may covet a chronograph like Miloseski and Ive wear; others might find it gaudy, as I do.
Perhaps this is why Miloseski has simultaneously developed a half-dozen other products. The first was a line of high-end headphones: Samsung, it turns out, saw the value in having its own premium audio accessories before Apple acquired Beats for $3 billion.
It has also reportedly produced a virtual-reality headset in cooperation with Facebook’s newly acquired Oculus VR division, which turns a Galaxy S5 phone into an immersive gaming machine. [Update: The print version of this story speculated that Samsung Design America worked on Samsung’s collaboration with Oculus VR; it did not.] And there will be more wristwear. “These wearable devices are the first of their kind,” Nuk says. “The market will grow, and we’re going to grow and make things better and better.”
Meanwhile, “we’re all waiting to see what Apple does,” says Kyle Swen, a partner at Astro Studios, which helped design Nike’s FuelBand. This fall, Cook is finally expected to reveal a wearable device. Will the iWatch–or whatever name Apple bestows upon it–have a flexible screen that fits snugly around a wearer’s wrist, as one Apple patent filing suggests? Will it be more like a souped-up iPod Nano, as a different patent would indicate? Or will it have no screen at all, as the trendiest rumormongers now posit?
Miloseski, with admirable restraint, insists he isn’t paying attention, couldn’t care less, doesn’t see that company as a competitor. “We don’t look at it as a race,” he says.
The race is on.
Five high-profile pieces expected by year’s end combine style and rocket science. Who wears it best?
What It Is” Luxury men’s wear designer Michael Bastian produces a stainless-steel chronograph exclusive to Gilt.com. Inspired by a sports-car dashboard, the watch will run notification apps and come with three bands.
What It Looks Like: Prerelease images are so gauzy that all we can say for sure is that it has a round, black face.
The Hype: “With the early devices I’ve seen,” says Bastian, “the design and feel of the watch take a backseat to the technology.”
What It Is: Metal bracelets and pendants to cover up a Fitbit fitness tracker.
What It Looks Like: Brass jewelry your grandma left you that you’re not sure is valuable or not.
The Hype: “We’re thrilled to be partnering with Fitbit to offer a unique collection of accessories that transform the fitness tracker into a stylish piece of jewelry that is versatile enough to go from day to evening,” says a Tory Burch spokesperson.
What It Is: Google partners with Diane von Furstenberg to try to give its smart spectacles some social grace.
What It Looks Like: If La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation went to Warby Parker.
The Hype: “You can be driving and watching a movie,” says von Furstenberg. “I probably shouldn’t say that. The point is that you can be filming things while you’re doing them.”
What It Is: A smart bracelet that will be sold at Barney’s (and OC) before 2014 is up.
What It Looks Like: No clue.
The Hype: “The fashion ecosystem has to be part of the wearable dream,” says Sandra Lopez, Intel’s director of business development. “In this case, Intel brings the engineering, and OC brings the design prowess. It’s a perfect marriage between two companies.”
What It Is: A leather-strap wristwatch… that also tracks your heart rate and sleep cycles.
What It Looks Like: Oh, my–it actually looks like a watch you’d wear.
The Hype: “We wanted to design a beautiful, Swiss-made watch and put in all the activity tracking–swimming, running, sleeping–but with a one-year battery,” says Julien Depreaumont of Withings. “We don’t want to sound pretentious, but it’s the epitome of a smartwatch.”