Lenovo, Motorola, and Google are bringing Android Wear to China in the form of the Moto 360 smartwatch. The watches will work with any Android device — but they won't work with iPhones. It might not seem like it, but it's actually surprising to see this platform get released in the country. Unlike Android on phones and tablets, Android watches have relied heavily on Google's services — services that are not available in China. And so, Google has decoupled Android Wear from its normal dependence on Google Now and Google Play.
In their stead, Lenovo and Motorola have turned to a Chinese company, Mobvoi, to provide search and voice recognition. While that means that Chinese users won't get Google Now cards, they will be able to search, perform voice actions like calling a taxi, and even dictate messages. So while the experience won't be identical to what's available elsewhere in the world, it won't be radically limited.
Mobvoi and Sogui will provide services
In fact, Google needed to do "quite a lot of work" to decouple Android Wear from Google's services, according to David Singleton, engineering director for Android. One small example, instead of saying "Ok Google" to your watch, you'd say "Ni hao Android" before speaking to it. In addition to MobVoi for voice features, Sogou will provide the mapping functionality for Android Wear. Google also says that Chinese app developers will be able to install apps onto Wear devices — though of course those apps will be installed via local app stores, not the Google Play app store.
Recently, The Information and The Wall Street Journal have both reported that Google is interested in bringing its services back to China — starting with the Google Play app store for Android. Google, of course, is not commenting — but sources tell those sites that the company would be willing to censor the apps in the Chinese version of its store. It would be an important move for Google as it continues to try to keep its Android platform from fragmenting too much.
The tension between putting more of Android under Google's control and leaving as much as possible in the open-source builds has been getting stronger lately. Google has been pushing more and more features through its suite of Google Play services. The most notable might be the technology behind the browser software on Android handsets, which for many users now gets updated automatically thanks to Google's services.
None of those updates get to China in anything like a timely fashion (if they come at all). That's presumably one of the reasons Google might be interested in coming back to China, albeit in a compromised way. Just as importantly, it ensures that there is consistency across devices and that most of them are on a relatively recent version of the OS.
Android is getting more and more Google-ified over time
And that tension between Google control and openness is actually even stronger with Android Wear. Until this new version of the Moto 360, Wear has been more locked down than the rest of Android. Though Google is quick to point out that manufacturers are free to load up their own apps on these watches, they are not free to create customized versions that are radically different from the core of the platform. That may be one reason that both Samsung and LG have taken the time to create competing smartwatch platforms — they want them to have a differentiated experience and support things like cellular radios right away.
"There's a real need to be able to iterate quickly."
Singleton says that Google is comfortable with this more locked-down strategy for Android Wear. "For Android Wear and wearables in general, we still feel the market is really early," Singleton says. "There's a real need to be able to iterate quickly... so that there's a good, consistent experience for users and developers." Singleton's not wrong; keeping the platform more locked down ensures stability and consistency across devices that often look quite different from one another. But it also means we're not likely to see a bunch of manufacturers create Android Wear watches in the same way we've seen them create Android phones.
What does it mean, then, that the Moto 360 with Android Wear is getting released in China? Well, it means that the Moto 360 is getting released in China and actually not much more. Google isn't bringing search and the Play store to the mainland (yet). Android Wear still requires manufacturers to partner up with Google to release a watch (for now). Those two stories are the same today as they were yesterday.
But will they be the same tomorrow? We'll leave the final answer to newly minted Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Back in May, I asked him, "Is your philosophy still 'we hope to get there but we're going to wait and see,' or are there going to be any changes there in the near future?" Here's his reply:
It's a good question. We are going to continue providing Android to the fullest extent possible in China, so we are incredibly excited. [...] We deeply care about investing there. We would love to serve Chinese users with Google services as well, obviously. I think it will be a privilege to do that, but we need to be thoughtful in how we do it. We are open to newer approaches. We'll have to wait and see.
We teach all our new writers never to end an article with "wait and see," but I guess when it comes to Google and China, rules were made to be broken.