Android Wear needs more than a new name to fight Apple Watch

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Android Wear needs more than a new name to fight Apple Watch

Google just rebranded its Android Wear watch platform with a new name: Wear OS. This news arrives less than two months before Google I/O, the annual developer conference in which Google announces its new initiatives and software broad strokes. New Google hardware generally (though not always) hits around October.

Maybe Wear OS is an indicator that Google’s smartwatch strategy is about to shift. That would be a good idea, since right now it isn’t exactly blowing away the competition… and the Apple Watch, in particular.

The Apple Watch took over the top spot in global wearable sales recently, according to IDC, despite the fact that it’s only compatible with iPhones. Fitbit just announced the Versa, a promising casual smartwatch that will interface with any iPhone or Android and starts at just $200. The wearable market is growing. But where is Google in that picture?

The Fossil Group, maker of many of the Android Wear watch products last year, reported some promising numbers: “In 2017, Fossil Group nearly doubled its wearables business to more than $300 million, including 20 percent of watch sales in Q4,” said Greg McKelvey, Fossil’s chief strategy and digital officer, as part of Google’s Wear OS announcement.

So it sounds like Android Wear — sorry, Wear OS — is still in the game. But the problem, for me, is that I’ve never found Android Wear watches to be particularly great. Google relaunched Android Wear over a year ago with new software and added fitness smarts, plus standalone phone functions. But Apple’s watch strategy has advanced faster, with better hardware. The Apple Watch S3 can be a phone, now. So can Samsung’s Gear S3, which runs on Tizen. Google, meanwhile, stopped adding cellular functions to watches after the lackluster LG Watch Sport last year.

And recently, instead of focusing on new features, Google has shifted to partnering with lots of fashion watch brands from the aforementioned Fossil Group — including Michael Kors, Misfit, Skagen, Kate Spade New York and Emporio Armani — flooding the market with too many similar products. Even odder, to me, is how many Android Wear watches drop features like GPS, optical heart rate tracking or NFC, the latter of which enables mobile payments.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

All about iPhone compatibility

Google’s name change is clearly part of a move to have its watches stand apart from Android. According to Google’s press release, the goal is to “build a wearable platform for everyone.”

That’s a similar approach to that which Google Home has taken: it’s something you don’t need Android for. And, actually, that’s been Google’s approach all along: Offer everyone quick access to Google. Google apps on the iPhone, on iPads, Google on the web, via Chrome, in Chromebooks.

Android Wear watches work with iOS, but not particularly well. The problem, largely, is that Apple’s software for connected devices is more locked down. Replying to notifications, transferring music, controlling phone settings: it’s not going to happen like it can on an Apple Watch. Smartwatches, despite starting to become standalone with cellular, still rely on phones to do be nearby. The iPhone has a large footprint, and is a tough platform to make deeply hooked-in wearables for.

But it matters: according to Google, one out of three new Android Wear watch owners also used an iPhone. That’s a big part, clearly, of the name change.

It should also be an opportunity to rethink what a Google smartwatch should even be.

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Quick app shortcuts, pop-up info… a good start, but not quite enough.


Josh Miller/CNET

A new OS should rethink the whole idea again

After years of wearing smartwatches, I’ve learned this: I don’t use apps often. I totally rely on excellent customized watch faces. I use voice commands to do things, but not all the time. Most of the time, I just check the time and a few basic stats. And if something isn’t easy to do and quick to access, I won’t use it.

Google’s making big advances in voice AI, and developing into a massive AI presence in general. I want a watch to reflect that, to be a smart assistant. But I don’t want all of that breathing down my neck and trying to overassist me. I want it to be a clearly working, cleanly designed device with good battery life and solid fitness tracking. To be laid back, or engaged and more helpful in a way I’d actually like. Also, something that could be smart home connected, a little Google Home on my wrist.

Maybe Google can take a step forward and challenge what Apple defines a smartwatch to be, create a bolder vision. Right now, Wear OS, Android Wear, whatever you want to call it, feels like a bunch of not-great software crammed onto fashion watch designs. Google nailed good round watch faces, but I want the rest.

Still hoping for a Google watch

It’s a muddy situation. And it’s drifted far away from a vision of a singular, killer Google watch product.

Google should make its own smartwatch. I’ve said it before, and I feel it’s even more true now. Google’s new hardware division, led by former Motorola Mobility head Rick Osterloh, has already made phones, VR headsets, speakers, cameras and headphones.

Could smartwatches be next?

Maybe, in a few months, Google will do something more. But I’m keeping my expectations in check.

Best smartwatches: Our current favorite wristwear.

Google I/O: Bookmark this page for all the news from the show.

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Author Scott Stein

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