Two things Android Wear needs to be successful
The buzz generated by the dawning age of wearable technology has been growing steadily louder. CES and MWC kicked off the year with a flurry of fitness trackers, smartwatches, and other wearables. You’ll be hard pressed to find a major OEM that isn’t planning to release some form of wearable technology this year, and a few already have.
Right now it’s a very messy space with multiple platforms and a palpable lack of killer apps. Enter Google on March 18 with “a project that extends Android to wearables”. The new Android Wear program is an important move and it was quickly followed up by announcements from Motorola and LG about forthcoming smartwatches, the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch.
What is Android Wear?
As more Android Wear details emerged it became clear that this is an extension of the Android platform. Trying to cram the full-fat version of Android onto a wristwatch is never going to be efficient (although there are developers doing just that, the Omate TrueSmart and the Neptune Pine).
Android Wear strips away the complexity to create a notification based system that delivers potentially important data to your wrist and employs Google Now to enable you to use voice commands. It has to be paired with an Android smartphone or tablet for you to take full advantage because there are no standalone apps running on the wearable device itself.
The concept video shows off a range of use cases, such as someone replying to a text by dictating a message, being notified when a taxi will arrive, displaying the boarding pass QR code for a flight, asking for the latest score in a game, getting a weather warning, seeing a time estimate for the commute, getting an update on calories burned, recognizing a song, and remotely opening a garage door.
In terms of advantages over your current situation, we can reduce all of these examples down to one thing – you no longer have to take your smartphone out of your pocket. In fact your smartphone is still doing all the heavy lifting. Your Android Wear device is just an extension of it. That’s not to say it’s not a good idea, but for major success it’s going to need to do more.
Developing a killer app
If you want to look at the wearable technology scene as a race for domination, then Google’s release of the Android Wear SDK could establish an early lead. The attraction of developing for a platform that will land on multiple devices from OEMs big and small is obvious. This could lead to some real innovation and that’s one thing smartwatches and other wearables really need to attract consumers. If someone can come up with a killer app that does more than extend your smartphone functionality to your wrist then it could really help to drive sales.
It’s worth stopping to ask whether wearables are really all about features. There is another factor here that could be even more important than functionality. For someone like me, who hasn’t worn a watch for nearly two decades it would take something special to tempt me in, but smartwatches have another market to go after.
Style over substance
According to a report from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry there were around 1.2 billion timepieces sold in 2013. The wristwatch industry hit a low point in 2009 and has actually been growing since then. The biggest watch group in the world, Swatch reported sales worth $ 9.3 billion last year with an operating profit of $ 2.1 billion.
The fact that more wristwatches were sold worldwide last year than smartphones shows the size of the opportunity. Obviously a good proportion of those watches will have been cheap, but 28.1 million of them came from Switzerland at an average value of $ 791.
People are not buying these watches primarily for their functionality; they are buying them for fashion and status. If the smartwatch market can tap into that, then sales could really take off, but are the big Android OEMs capable of producing stylish devices?
Tech and fashion
They can be uneasy bedfellows. When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Gear, fashion was clearly not the focus. The 10 year-old me would have been excited, because it looks like a spy gadget from the eighties. The biggest boost that the Android Wear program could have received came in the shape of the Moto 360, because it clearly has one eye on classic design that’s desirable to wear.
For Android Wear to succeed on a large scale it needs fashionable hardware. This isn’t necessary going to come from the existing Android OEMs, although Motorola does give hope. What’s to stop the Swatch group and other watch manufacturers from hopping onboard? They don’t need to design a platform or apps; they can just focus on bringing their wristwatch fashion know-how to bear.
Oakley are already doing this in the smart glasses space and it’s not like these fashion brands would have to do it for themselves, surely we’ll see some deals being struck. What’s to stop Tag Heuer, Rolex, Chanel, or Cartier from teaming up with an electronics manufacturer? Trendy devices running Android Wear would definitely sell, there’s a proven market there already.
Fitness trackers leading the way
There are a couple of reasons that fitness trackers are leading the wearables market.
Firstly, they offer functionality that’s useful in a better format than your smartphone. You can wear a lightweight device that’s unobtrusive enough for you to forget you’re wearing it and track all your activity. It’s also better at tracking that activity than your smartphone is because you wear it.
Secondly, the relatively basic requirements and lack of restrictions about how they are worn offer opportunities for manufacturers to come up with stylish and desirable designs that don’t look like electronics. The Misfit Shine is a good example of this.
The right mix
Elements like battery life and price point are obviously going to weigh in heavily here, but we can expect rapid improvements in both areas if the market takes off. Ultimately the success of Google’s Android Wear is not entirely in its hands, just as the success of the Android platform wasn’t.
For it to claim a strong lead and create a new market, or break into the existing wristwatch market, it requires developers to create great killer apps and manufacturers to build sexy devices that people actually want to wear.