After two years of seeing smaller companies dabble with smart watches, the big tech companies have decided it’s time to enter the market.

Samsung and Qualcomm both unveiled their first connected watches this week, Sony recently updated its SmartWatch product and Google and Apple are both rumored to be prepping their own releases in the next year or so.

The smartphone war is heating up, but what exactly are these companies fighting for?

Until now, smart watch shipments have been negligible, to say the least. Most analysts we spoke with only started tracking the market recently and estimate that units are currently measured in the thousands per month. But the expectation is that the market will explode in the next five years.

Jeff Orr, a mobile industry analyst with ABI Research, estimates that there will be 1.2 million smart watch shipments worldwide this year, 7 million in 2014 and 140 million in 2018. That growth, he says, is based on the assumption that three or more big players enter the space and drive consumers to adopt the device.

“I’m a big believer that in all tech markets, when you want to warm up audiences to a new product, there needs to be that champion for it,” he told Mashable, pointing to brands like Samsung and the rumored entrance of Apple. “They have that multinational reach and the channels to affect getting that message out.”

Other analysts are even more optimistic for smart watch shipments. Angela McIntyre, a research director at Gartner covering wearable electronics, projects vendors may ship “upwards” of 5 million smart watches this year and twice that number next year if more big players enter the market.

While these estimates are impressive for a new product category, it falls well below the smartphone market. Smartphone shipments topped 100 million in 2007 — the year the original iPhone was released — and they are expected top 1 billion this year.

To put it another way, the smart watch market probably doesn’t have the same potential for user and revenue growth as the smartphone market, but it offers other perks for smartphone companies. McIntyre argues that manufacturers may be able to bundle the watches together with larger phones — aka “phablets” — to boost sales of both. She also speculates that smart watches may evolve to the point where they could “displace” some sales of smartphones, so better to invest in the technology now.

“At this point, they are looking for synergies with their big money makers which are the smartphones,” McIntyre says, adding that the watch may serve as another way for companies to bring and keep people in their product ecosystem.

Beyond that, analysts note a certain amount of excitement for wearable devices in general — particularly wearable fitness technology — which may translate to sales for smart watches. And while smart glasses — or Google Glass, in particular — may have dominated coverage of wearable computing for awhile, the analysts we spoke with still believe the market for watches is significantly larger.

Orr estimates that there will be fewer than 10,000 smart glasses shipments worldwide this year, about 2 million next year and 75 million in 2018 — a little more than half his projected estimate for smart watches that year. The reason, he says, is that smart glasses is a more “specialized” product with potential for particular professionals rather than average consumers. He also believes there is more of a cultural adjustment required for a mainstream audience to buy and use facial computing technology than for watches.

Source: Mashable / Image: Mashable