After months of speculation regarding Android Wear 2.0 and the devices that would launch alongside it, Google has finally unveiled the final version of its newest version of Wear with two LG-branded watches. These two watches, and more importantly the OS running on them, have a lot riding on their shoulders given how much Android Wear has struggled as of late.
After launching to a still-growing market filled with Pebbles and a mess of Samsung Gear devices, Android Wear was a well-polished, full wearable OS that posed to dominate like its phones did just a few years ago. Today though, stagnation and seemingly poor decision-making with a lack of clear focus have led to Android Wear feeling out of date and out of touch with what consumers really want in a wearable priced over $200. Apple has somewhat-successfully targeted the app-based market, and Samsung offers one of the best all-around experiences combining both a notification/card based system with an app based one. Both of these devices also double as excellent fitness trackers while Android Wear still struggles, a matter which I touched upon in a previous editorial on. As with all markets, smartwatches quickly exploded and the wearable space grew considerably over the past two years; even if many didn’t really notice, and even if that initial bang only lasted a short while. Unlike, say, the phone market which grows quickly via hardware improvements, many of the leaps forward for wearables have come via software updates adding more features directly or indirectly by improving battery life, enabling superior fitness tracking, or implementing support for latent hardware features..
For example, at launch the Apple Watch could hardly last a day, and now thanks to a series of updates, my 1st gen Apple Watch will easily last two days — and it’s faster than it ever was before as well. The second generation is a huge leap forward from that, offering GPS, a faster processor, and better water resistance clearly targeting the fitness first consumers. The Samsung Gear lineup has significantly grown as well, coming from a comical start with a myriad of devices featuring cameras and horrible designs (not to mention terrible ads) to one of the best thought-out and feature-full wearables with the Gear S2, made even better – or worse – by the Gear S3. Like it or not, wearables of all sorts have made their place in consumers homes, and on their wrists.
So where does that leave Android Wear? Throughout its revisions, Android Wear has cleaned up and adjusted how it looks and feels, making it more easy to use while adding small features here and there. I currently own an Apple Watch, Gear S2, and a few Android Wear devices — between the three platforms, Android Wear is hands down the most polished feeling and best-looking wearable OS. But adding small features here and there, changing the way the drop-down shade looks, and constantly changing how the button operates on the side of the device doesn’t do a whole lot to set the platform apart in this market. Some may feel that hardware is the answer, and while there is some validity to that thought, wearable hardware alone cannot and will not save Android Wear and neither will low pricing and more affordable devices, that serves to only further fragment the market. Finally, a “Pixel Watch” cannot save Android Wear either; not yet. I’ll explain my reasoning in the sections below.
The Perfect Storm
Some largely point to the “success” of the Pixel phone as a key identifier to why Wear needs a Pixel-branded watch. However, it is important to see the Pixels’ success for what it is, the perfect storm after the iPhone 7+ lost its headphone jack, LG made a ripple instead of a wave with the V20 after botching the G5, and the Note7’s battery failures. Without that excellent situation and the advertising campaign behind it (in part courtesy of Verizon), one could easily believe that the Pixel, a lightly-featured piece of hardware for its price, would be doing hardly any better than the Nexus brand did before it. Further, the needs of the wearable market are entirely different, and it never featured the reasons why there was such an outcry for a Pixel phone. Android Wear OEMs are not screwing with the Android Wear experience like they do on Android, and updates are pushed to many devices relatively quickly. If you buy a Huawei Watch, Moto 360 and LG Urbane you will essentially find the exact same UX — something we can only dream about on the phone side of things.
So why, then, will Android Wear likely continue to do poorly even with a “Pixel” watch? The reasons are two-fold, and unfortunately Google has very little control over either right now. The first is Samsung: unlike Apple, Google has to compete with the Tizen-based Gear S line to sell its watches. While Samsung’s overall market-share dropped in 2016, the Gear S line still poses a threat to Google especially with the impending launch of the Galaxy S8, a device that can almost be guaranteed to be pushed alongside the Gear S3. How well Android Wear stacks up to its competition is near impossible to determine, as Android Wear is still bundled under “Other” in OS market share readouts. However, in OEM market share for wearables Motorola (or Lenovo), the only Android Wear OEM in the top 5 had a whopping 3.4% market share for 3Q 2016, almost half of 2015’s market share.
This likely means that Android Wear devices are very poor sellers (and that their market-share is far less than that of Samsung) which we could assume is devastating to future growth. Aside from competition from Galaxy Gear devices, which work as well on a Pixel as they do on a Galaxy S7, the second element Google has to contend with is Apple, since Android Wear devices are compatible with iOS and Google still sees this as a target market (which it certainly is in the United States and other nations with strong economies).
The iPhone Element
When people point to the Apple Watch and its success, they point to the device itself, and while Apple can engineer a mean piece of hardware, the Apple Watch does not owe the majority of its success to itself alone. Currently, I have both my Gear S2 and Huawei Watch paired to my iPhone 7+, and the experience is rather great, even if it is a bit limited compared to what they can do on Android. But despite the “works with iOS” branding and a vast assortment of both premium and feature-full hardware, people are not buying Android Wear devices as much as they choose the Apple Watch, and the market shows this. While the Apple Watch is selling solidly, the rest of the market is in total disarray. Motorola dropped out of the wearable race entirely for the foreseeable future (remember they were the only Android Wear OEM in IDC’s top 5), HTC started then stopped their efforts, Pebble got bought, Fitbit is sees weak sales, and Fossil – a renowned watchmaker – is in serious trouble right now after its pivot towards Android Wear has been largely unsuccessful. But as I mentioned earlier, things on the Apple side of the coin are relatively rosey; why? Why is it that every other wearable manufacturer around is struggling, losing money or being bought out, but Apple is doing fine despite some Android Wear devices having the hardware advantage?
The iPhone. While we as Android enthusiasts give the iPhone a lot of shade, it is an exceptionally well-rounded device that is reliable, easy to use, and universal… and most importantly, it extends this reputation to the Watch, even if it is not as reliable, easy to use, or universal as the iPhone itself. The iPhone is a very well-established brand and arguably one of the best to market such an accompanying wearable. Expanding on that, Apple has an expansive ecosystem of accessory makers and application developers making the Apple Watch the defacto Smartwatch on the market; something Android Wear owners could only dream of. The Apple Watch does not have to be the best wearable on the market to sell – although it makes a compelling case for the top spot – because there is no better device to be related to than the iPhone.
While Android Wear devices can offer a better-looking, more-polished and fully-featured experience, Android Wear devices lack the iPhone element to help them with sales. Samsung has this element as well to a smaller extent. While indicators point to Samsung’s overall market share dropping in 2016, this drop can be attributed to the failure of the Note7, not a failure of the device, and the launch of the Galaxy S8 could stand to catapult Samsung wearables solidly back into the #2 spot.
In order for Android Wear to succeed, it doesn’t need a Pixel watch, at least not yet, it needs the iPhone element and an iPhone-like device to draw from. Regardless of its hardware, features, or software, the short history of wearables has shown us that a smartwatch’s success is highly dependent on the phone it is most sold and marketed with, and Google is still struggling here. The Pixel was a good start, but its launch still pales in comparison with its competitors’ launches, and even had a difficult time outshining older devices like the Galaxy S7 in the 4th quarter. The “perfect storm” the Pixel benefits from today is not going to last forever and 2017 will be true test of the brand’s worth as it will likely battle the very best we have ever seen from Samsung, up to three new iPhones, and whatever else may transpire come October. Google’s focus right now needs to be on its smartphone brand, image, value, and service for the customer. If and when they achieve Apple like parity – or even Samsung’s standing – Google can turn its attention to building its own partner to the Pixel with a Pixel branded smartwatch and other devices. Until then, Google has an advantage it didn’t with Android: that is more control over the OS by not allowing OEM’s to modify it for their own desires and it needs to continue to leverage this as it has been doing.
If Google launches a Pixel smartwatch without strengthening its Pixel brand first, any effort will suffer the same fate as Motorola, Pebble, and Fossil… failure.