Warm up your wrist: 5M smartwatch shipments expected in 2014

Smartwatches of some sort have been around for years without truly making a dent in the mainstream consumer market. That’s all about to change, according to research firm Canalys: It expects a 900 percent increase in smartwatch shipments next year. Why the big boost? All the big tech companies are expected to chime in on this market within the next 12 to 18 months.
Currently, Sony(s sne) is considered the smartwatch sales leader, even though its last few products have been marginal performers at best. The company has a revamped smartwatch due out this September, however, and is already generating some buzz.

Sony SmartWatch 2 trio

Various Kickstarter projects have delivered viable smartwatches as well: Pebble raised $10.2 million for its smartwatch last year and recently scored a retail partnership with Best Buy(s bbuy), helping to get the product in front of a mass market. But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the future of wearable gadgets that tell time, provide smartphone notifications and track your health. The big boys are on the move and want to be on your wrist.
Google(s goog) already has a reasonably good smartwatch in the MotoACTV, designed and built by Motorola, but it’s due for a refresh, if not a completely new product. The company is reportedly working on such a device, which I expect will heavily take advantage of what Google is learning from its Google Glass accessory in terms of usability and user interfaces.
It’s unlikely anyone will catch Apple(s aapl) unaware in this market: It too is rumored to be working on a wearable device and has recently trademarked the iWatch name in several countries. Apple could enter the market later than its peers with a smartwatch, mainly because it’s not likely to release the product until its concept is bullet-proof and simple to use.
Microsoft(s msft) too is in the running with recent reports that its smartwatch won’t need a smartphone for its data connection. Instead, information from the web will come directly to the watch through an integrated LTE radio. My suspicion is that Microsoft is trying various hardware configurations — both with and without mobile broadband radios — to determine which works best and is most appealing to consumers.
It will be interesting to see which smartwatch vendors make their product a second screen for a smartphone as opposed to a true standalone gadget. Canalys Analyst James Wang suggests the latter:

An effective smart watch won’t just be a second screen for a smart phone. Creating a competent developer platform specifically for the form factor will be an enormous challenge. Google and Microsoft must execute more successfully than they have done with their tablet platforms and will have to adapt their business models appropriately.

After using the MotoACTV for the past 18 months, I think the more successful products will be a hybrid of the two. The device will pair with a smartphone to receive incoming notifications but will also have apps of its own so you can leave the smartphone behind.
Regardless of the functional approach, you might want to get ready: The smartwatches, and the apps to power them, are coming.