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The clock is ticking on Google’s smartwatch platform

The clock is ticking on Google’s smartwatch platform


Maybe it’ll be better next year

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Last week, I wrote about the new software update for Wear OS, Google’s smartwatch platform. I thought (and think) that it’s a good update for existing users and potentially a foundation that the company could build on to make something that’s actually competitive with both the Apple Watch or even Samsung’s Galaxy Watch.

The update “breathes new life into Wear OS smartwatches,” but the emphasis is very much on existing smartwatches. You see, I also wrote that this update does not mean that you should go out and buy a new Wear OS watch — and therein lies the problem for Google. There’s a “life support” metaphor in “breathing new life” if you want to reach for it.

Android users have perennially been waiting for the next thing to save the platform. The switch over from Android Wear to Wear OS was meant to highlight that the platform could be used with iPhones, but it didn’t significantly change anything. Then the wait was on for a new, faster processor — but what Qualcomm came out with seems primarily focused on battery life. Now another wait is on: to see shipping watches using the new processor to learn if, in fact, it does more than extend battery life.

Google’s smartwatches usually feel behind the times

The company had been rumored to be working on its own watch hardware, the so-called Pixel Watch, but in August that rumor was laid to rest by Google itself. Whether it was a delay or a cancellation, I think Google made the right call. Short of something very surprising, I very much doubt that it would have been able to produce something good enough to deserve Google’s “Pixel” imprimatur. Maybe next year.

But “maybe next year” is something we’ve been saying about Wear OS (and Android Wear before it) pretty much since we strapped the very first watches to our wrists. Meanwhile, Apple has completely taken over the wearables market — the only viable competition comes from Xiaomi, which primarily sells devices that cost hundreds less.

I don’t know that Wear OS needs to be competitive with the Apple Watch, though. Smartwatches are neat, but I don’t know that it’s a strategic risk to Google’s business to not be a real player in that game. It’s probably enough that it has some kind of option for Android users to fend off switchers.

When I am using an Android phone, I’m back to using a Wear OS watch myself. But the delta between what you get with Wear OS on Android vs. an Apple Watch on the iPhone is really big and growing larger. Right now, the Apple Watch serves as a compelling reason for iPhone users to stay iPhone users. At some point, it could sneak over a line and begin to convince Android users to become iPhone users.

Maybe next year

One of the major ways the iPod got big is when Apple made it compatible with Windows computers. It opened the iPod up to a massive new market and may have had a “halo effect,” driving people to buy Macs because they were so happy with their iPods.

When I suggest that Apple could consider doing something similar with the Apple Watch and Android, I’m usually laughed out of the room. For good reason: Apple doesn’t need Android users to make its watch a success nor is it really having any problem selling iPhones — to say nothing of how supporting Android would be a complicated strain on resources.

Apple today is in a very different place than it was when it put the iPod on Windows. But you could make the case that the main thing keeping Wear OS afloat is that Apple can’t be bothered to try to compete with it. If Apple ever wanted to make a concerted effort to pull more Android users over to the iPhone, that could change. There are, after all, over 2 billion of them and it’s the most dominant operating system on the planet.

Google claimed last year that one out of three Wear OS users had an iPhone, but I don’t think that is why Wear OS is important. It’s important because it’s the first-party smartwatch platform for Android users. Wear OS 2.1 is a good foundation — at least from a UI perspective — to build a better smartwatch for Android users. But it’s just a foundation, and I still think Android users deserve better smartwatches.

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