From Sci-Fi to Reality: How GPS-Enabled Smartwatches Entered the Mainstream

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From The Jetsons in the 1960s to Power Rangers in the 1990s, variations of smartwatches have been part of pop culture for decades. In the late 80s and early 90s, companies like Casio, Epson, and Seiko manufactured watches with features like keyboards, data transfer, and internal memory to store text and calendars. However, when GPS technology finally started to make its way into watches, these time-telling devices entered the modern age.

The Earliest GPS-Enabled Watches (Late 90s to Early 2000s)

The earliest GPS-enabled watches were marketed to outdoor adventurers and athletes, connecting them to the wider world in case they got lost. In 1999, Casio released the very first wristwatch with integrated GPS technology: the Casio PRT-1GP. While the addition of GPS was groundbreaking, it was met with little fanfare for a multitude of reasons: aside from being inaccurate, the watch was large, cumbersome, and extremely complex.

After the release of the PRT-1GP, it would be another few years before Garmin and Suunto released their “wrist-mounted GPS” wearable devices. Early Garmin models were even bigger than the Casio PRT-1GP and still suffered from frequent signal loss. Suunto’s X9, on the other hand, was smaller than the Garmin units and looked more like a traditional watch. Another key difference: Garmin units sold for under $200, while the X9’s MSRP was $769! These early models had plenty of flaws, to be sure — but rarely is new technology perfected in its first iteration, and these GPS-enabled devices set the precedent for watches to come.

GPS Watches Grow and Shrink (Mid-to-Late 2000s)

The market for connected wearables was growing slowly throughout the 2000s. Garmin continued producing their wearable GPS devices, and soon, reviewers recognized these devices as watches. Shrinking receiver sizes were now being integrated into the motherboards of devices.

During this period, some watches added further functionalities, like wireless data transfer. 2007 saw the release of Sony’s Ericsson MBW-150, which paired with Sony cell phones to display incoming calls or texts via Bluetooth. A few years later, the sixth generation iPod Nano was released with app functionality. Though not initially meant as a watch, people started putting wrist straps on their Nanos — think an unofficial prototype of the Apple Watch! Soon, one device would combine the benefits of GPS technology and the connectivity of a wireless network.

Watches Get Smart (Early 2010s)

By early this decade, GPS-enabled running watches had become popular, with more manufacturers producing them cheaper. At the end of 2012, four out of five watches on The Heart Rate Watch Company’s Best of 2012 list were from different manufacturers, and all but one were GPS-enabled. Many of these watches also featured computer connectivity via USB, allowing users to upload statistics to the internet via their PC.

It was also in 2012 that the Pebble Smartwatch earned over $10.2 million from backers on Kickstarter, setting a world record. This proved beyond a doubt that a wider audience was interested in watches that could serve as an extension of their smartphone. Although the Pebble featured downloadable apps, its GPS functionality was reliant on a paired cell phone. Over the next two years, the Sony Smartwatch 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Gear featured connectivity via smartphone as well as GPS. Unlike the Pebble, though, these wearables paired only with Android smartphones, leaving a niche in the market for Apple to develop their own smartwatch.

Modern Smartwatches: The Emergence of Apple

Perhaps wisely, Apple didn’t enter the smartwatch market until they saw proof of its wide audience. In April 2015, three years after the Pebble, the Apple Watch was released, and the result was a massive success: the Apple Watch made an estimated $2.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2015 alone, accounting for 80% of all smartwatch market revenue at the time. Curiously, the Apple Watch wasn’t GPS-enabled until the release of the Apple Watch Series 2 in September 2016!

From the initial release of the Casio PRT-1GP, it took almost twenty years for Apple to produce a GPS-enabled smartwatch, now the standard for smartwatches. Stronger batteries, better health tracking, and data network connectivity are just a few things on the list for future releases like the Apple Watch Series 3, out this September. As these functionalities increase, expect these formerly niche products to become as common as smartphones themselves.