An electronics shop at Huaqianbi in Shenzhen. Photo via flickr/shaff
If you’re in the gadget business, you’re paying attention to China. Not only because it’s a huge market for consumer electronics, but because Chinese merchants are probably reverse-engineering your device and selling knock-offs at a quarter the price. While this bootlegging gray market is an ongoing thorn in the US tech industry’s side, it can also be a bellwether for the gadget game, a barometer of trendiness. So on the flip side, if China’s not trying to rip you off, is the product a flop?
A CNN reporter recently visited the Huaqiangbei marketplace in Shenzhen, the epicenter of rip-off electronics, and noticed a conspicuous lack of wearable tech, which has been hyped nearly to death in the US. Specifically, there were no knock-off versions of Samsung's Galaxy Gear—the first smart watch on the commercial market. "There are no copies for sale," a Huaqiangbei merchant told CNN. "Maybe we'll have them in a few months. I don't know, interest is low."
Blogosphere headlines interpreted the lack of copycat Galaxy Gears as a sign that no one wants to wear a computer on their wrist. But really, it probably only means no one wants to wear the Galaxy Gear on their wrist, because it's totally meh. The watch launched this year to dismal reviews and sales—reportedly, about 30 percent of Gear smart watches bought in Best Buy last year were returned. I'm not surprised: I played with one while stuck in a mall over Christmas and lost interest in about 45 seconds.
But the lukewarm response to connected wristwatches by US consumers and all-out snubbing of them in Shenzhen doesn’t mean wearable tech is doomed. In fact, there are already Chinese copycat versions of other wearables being developed.
Search engine giant Baidu, “China’s Google,” is making a smart eyewear device to mimic Google Glass. It’s called the "Eye." And a Chinese company is developing an imitation version of Apple's long-rumored iWatch, not-so-subtly called the K1 iWatch. The Apple smart watch doesn't even exist yet and there's a knock-off. That's real buzz, and it speaks volumes to Apple's power to move markets.
If China is a pacesetter for consumer electronics, it seems to be right on the money. Wearable tech hasn't arrived, yet. Demand isn’t there, yet. It's too early. This isn’t surprising; despite a lot of excited speculation about the cybernetic future, wearable technology is very much still in development.
So, yeah, no one wants a smart watch. But the connected wristbands debuting now are, for the most, more proof of concept than practical devices. There are kinks and imperfections to work out for the next-gen versions before they’re useful enough to warrant an almost $400 price tag or cool enough to clone and sell for less. At this point they may not hold a lot of appeal outside of early-adopter gearheads and the attendees of CES, but it's obvious by now that in the tech world the standard isn't set by who gets there first, but who does it best—look at Blackberry and the iPhone.
I’m willing to bet wearables do take off eventually. It’s the natural next evolutionary step—computers getting smaller, integrating more with humans, and increasingly devices push data to you instead of you having to retrieve it. With wearables, the information’s right in your line of vision; you can read an email or check a voice message without having to dig around for your phone. Google and Apple getting in the game will help, as will advances in voice-recognition controls, and generally a smart approach to how people want to interact with a connected watch (probably as little as possible). Whoever nails it first and puts out a device that actually makes daily life easier and more enjoyable, rest assured people will copy it.