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What can Google do to compete with the Apple Watch? Not much

What can Google do to compete with the Apple Watch? Not much


Nobody has the right incentives to fix Wear OS but Google

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verg

Here’s my review of the Apple Watch Series 5. It is, of course, the best smartwatch for iPhone users. If you don’t want to spend $400, you can go get a Fitbit Versa or a hybrid smartwatch or — and this is probably the better choice — get an Apple Watch Series 3 for just $200.

I have said pretty much all I have to say about the Apple Watch in the review above, but luckily for me a coincidental leak of a Fossil smartwatch showed up, as if it was begging to be compared to the Apple Watch. Okay, let’s do that.

Before we get started, though, I should say that sometimes when a leak comes out at just the perfect time you wonder if it was planted, or if you trust the outlet to not take plants, if it was somehow intentionally leaked. I usually don’t put stock into such claims — Hanlon’s razor states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

In other words: it’s fun to imagine giant corporations are playing 4D chess and strategically ensuring they’re inserted into the conversation at opportune times, but it’s much more likely that stuff just leaks.

That’s doubly true with this Fossil, because it doesn’t look super hot next to the Apple Watch. It’s an object lesson in how leaks sort of happen. The chain of where it came from and what might be involved is a little tough to follow, so here’s a quick (pardon the pun) tick-tock:

  1. Google beats everybody to the punch by announcing Android Wear watches in May 2014 (just months ahead of the Apple Watch).
  2. Android Wear flounders, due to several reasons — not all of which you can pin solely on Google.
  3. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch overcomes a lackluster first-generation product to become a great product and a massive business for Apple, eating everybody else’s lunch.
  4. Google realizes how far behind it is and tries to get all asymmetrical with its competitive strategy by partnering with watch companies like Fossil and Tag Heuer.
  5. ...
  6. Only Apple profits.

That’s where we stand now, when we see a few images and descriptions of watches that look like they’re running Wear OS on an E Ink screen underneath actual, physical watch hands. It’s reportedly built off of the technology Google acquired from its bestie Fossil for $40 million called “Diana.”

The rumored Fossils look like interim solutions

It may or may not actually be Wear OS (my guess is that it is). It may or may not actually use E Ink. Even if both of those things turn out to be true, nailing the execution of an E Ink watch that needs to show information underneath physical watch hands is going to be devilishly tricky.

Whatever it is, it is not a heads-up competitor to the Apple Watch.

I, along with pretty much every other reporter who watches Android closely, have been bemoaning the sorry state of smartwatch options for Android users for quite some time. A bunch of options are fine, but none are great. It’s gotten to the point where my readers are probably as tired of hearing it from me as I am of saying it (so this might be the last time for a while).

The rumored Fossil smartwatch that may run Wear OS and may have an E-Ink screen.
The rumored Fossil smartwatch that may run Wear OS and may have an E-Ink screen.

But I bring it up again here just to make sure that expectations are properly set: whatever Fossil is working on here, it’s another version of step three above — it will be in a subtly different category. I suspect it will be a watch for people who want physical hands and who won’t want to have to charge it as often.

That’s theoretically a smart move from both Google and Fossil, but it’s also a sign that Google is nowhere near being able to take on the Apple Watch directly. Wear OS is getting more mature as a software platform — it has most of the features you’d want, albeit in basic form. But the hardware it runs on is not very good.

Don’t hold your breath for Google to figure it out this year, though. Because while that Fossil leak wasn’t really timed for the Apple Watch, Nick Bastone’s excellent investigation at Business Insider surely was. Bastone tells the story from inside Google, confirming that hardware chief Rick Osterloh nixed a planned Pixel Watch a few years ago.

Google unquestionably made the right call by nixing the Pixel Watch in 2016

It was unquestionably the right call. I can say that because I used those smartwatches — they were eventually released under LG branding in 2017 and they were an embarrassment. Dan Seifert’s review got it exactly right, but let me underline that a watch that you can’t trust to last more than 12 or so hours would have been awful for Google’s brand.

What does Osterloh — and Google — do now? Hopefully find a way to get a better processor that runs better on watches than the dreck Qualcomm reheated in 2018. Then Google has to revisit the decision to let partners take the lead on hardware.

You can probably guess what I think Google should do: try again to make something itself. No other company is going to do much more than experiment with Wear OS, there’s no existential incentive to do so. Even Qualcomm doesn’t seem interested.

All of which means Android users need to temper their expectations, because figuring out how to get the right processor to make a good watch is not a thing that any company can do in just a year or even two. Maybe Google’s already been working on it, maybe not.

Until then, have you seen Samsung’s Tizen-based watches? They’re fine, and a new one that was announced not too long ago seems pretty okay. Yep. Okay, fine.

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