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Indie smartwatches are doomed as long as Apple and Google have control

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The Dagadam Watch is the latest Kickstarter to fail to learn Pebble’s lesson

Smartwatches are having a rough time. No matter what your chosen platform, sales are mostly down, hardware is mostly bulky, software is mostly slow, and battery life is mostly poor. The industry in general seems to be pivoting towards a slew of similar Android Wear watches where the main difference is in what fashion brand logo they bear.

But yet, there are still dreamers like the folks behind the Dagadam Watch, which is looking for backing on Kickstarter. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Dagadam’s hardware on its own — it’s a nice enough looking (if a bit thick) touchscreen smartwatch that uses an interesting touch bezel control scheme and has a claimed three days of battery life. But the idea of launching an independent third-party smartwatch based on a proprietary software platform in today’s market just seems incredibly foolhardy.

As it stands, there are two, maybe three viable smartwatch platforms right now:

  • Apple Watch, because Apple also makes iPhones and refuses to allow anyone else to have similar levels of integration into iOS. That means that unlike third parties like Pebble, Apple can integrate iMessage and allow Apple Watch apps to be bundled together with the iPhone apps you already have installed.
  • Android Wear, which has a similar advantage, allowing developers to easily tie their existing Android apps into Google’s smartwatch platform. That gives Android Wear great third-party support, with the added backing of Google’s massive software chops.
  • And Samsung’s Galaxy Gear line, which is probably the closest comparison to something like the Dagadam. Recent Gear watches also run their own proprietary platform with more limited developer support than Android Wear or the Apple Watch; but unlike the Dagadam, where the success or failure of the company is riding on a single product, Samsung is a multi-billion dollar corporation that has the resources to keep the Gear line going for years, even if it sells poorly.

That’s it. The next closest we’ve ever had to a viable third party contender was Pebble, which despite having literally everything going for it — first to market, great design, outstanding battery life, positive reviews, dedicated customers, and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding — still couldn’t beat the established players. It was recently sold on the cheap to Fitbit and won’t be making or supporting its hardware anymore.

Sure, the Dagadam Watch has made its $100,000 funding goal on Kickstarter. It’ll hopefully ship to backers, despite coming from a first time company. But even if somehow the Dagadam Watch has, bar none, the single greatest smartwatch hardware and interface ever made, beating out Apple’s billions of dollars in R&D and Google’s teams of top software engineers — which is about as realistic as thinking that your crowdfunded smartphone will somehow top the Galaxy S8 or Apple’s next iPhone — it still won’t matter so long as Apple and Google have total control over the playing field.

I’m not saying that more competition in this market would be bad — competition is great! But there’s no way around the fact that the technology we have today for smartwatches is simply too tied to a host smartphone for core functionality. And when you rely on a smartphone, Apple, Google, and even Samsung have such a home court advantage that it’s nearly impossible for even the scrappiest Kickstarter to overcome. It was a core factor in hastening Pebble’s demise, and it’ll continue to shut down future contenders until smartwatches can somehow break free of their inherent reliance on smartphones.

And cutting the tether to smartphones is a tough task. Adding LTE might be able to do it, but you’ll need a bigger, more power-hungry radio — which of course means even worse battery life and a chunkier watch — along with the added cost of separate cellular service. And the efforts we’ve seen so far in that vein have come across more as hobbled smartphones than truly independent smartwatches.

All hope isn’t lost in the watch industry — hybrid smartwatches that simply track fitness data and buzz for notifications are far less reliant on a tethered smartphone, and increasingly could be the future of wearables. But for now, it’s hard to look at any third party smartwatch like the Dagadam as anything but an exercise in futility.