As of today, Android Wear has an 18 percent hold of the market share of smartwatches. In comparison, according to Strategy Analytics, Android on phones captured a record-high of 87.5 percent of the global market share of smartphones late last year. That’s a staggering difference.
If you aren’t convinced by the numbers, just look at Google’s most recent developers conference, Google I/O. Not a single thing was said about Android Wear or Android Wear smartwatches. No sales numbers, no software updates, no hardware announcements—nothing. What’s worse is that Android Wear 2.0 was unceremoniously dropped (via a blog post of all places) in February and added very few changes for what should have been a fairly significant update.
In other words, even Google has seen the writing on the wall. It’s not that Android Wear has had a hard time catching on—it’s completely failed to capture the attention of the world.
Just three years ago, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the burgeoning new technology surrounding wearables. The smartphone was to fade away—and in its place we were going to have computers all over our bodies, particularly on our wrists and in front of our eyes. These new wearable devices were not only supposed to be “the next big thing,” they were supposed to radically change the way we interacted with technology.
Before 2014, the Apples, Googles and Microsofts of the world seemed hesitant to jump into these new form factors and platforms. As with most forward-thinking technology, it comes from the ground-up with small start-ups and passionate technologists—companies like Oculus and Pebble come to mind. It was only a matter of time before the largest tech companies in the world were spending gobs of resources developing wearables.
Google’s first piece of wearable technology was its most ambitious—and it’s most disastrous. Though Google Glass doesn’t technically run on the Android Wear, it was certainly the precursor to what Google was going to do in the wearable space.
Google Glass was a wearable device that fit over one eye like half a pair of glasses. Notifications and UI ran over your vision and could put augmented reality elements right over the real world. The design was bold and futuristic, not shying away from science fiction that inspired it.
The product was created from the ground-up by engineers and designers at Google, and was always meant to be an exploratory device. It was never meant to catch on and sell millions of devices. However, it was meant to get the world’s attention. And while journalists and early adopters rushed out to try it on, the pushback in both the media and in the public at large was building.
Before the device could ever really get out into the hands of the public, everyone from restaurant owners to legislators were lined up against it. Even aside from the paranoia around words like cyborgs though, the legitimate concerns about the Google Glass had more to do with its purpose for being. It had some neat features, but for the most part it was making technology we all had access to even more accessible. But is that really a good value proposition for a $1500 product? Who was this product for and what was it supposed to do?
My point is not to bemoan Google Glass, it’s that the same concerns that plagued Google Glass are a problem with Android Wear up to this day.
When Android Wear was first announced at Google I/O back in 2014, there was a lot of excitement in the air. Google seemed like the perfect company to not just make a smartwatch, but to shape an entire software platform built for the wrist. As we noted back then, Google already had experience with wearables, has the very best AI technology, and great relationships with mobile manufacturers. In many ways, all the pieces were laid out on the chessboard. So what happened?
The first hint that Android Wear was going to get a slow start was seen in the first two smartwatches: the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch. At first glance, these two smartwatches checked all the right boxes and played nicely with what Google wanted. But the peculiar thing about these two devices (neither of which made much of a splash in the market) was that they were nearly indistinguishable from each other. The look was very similar, the features were identical, and they were even very close in cost.
Months went by and a whole host of other very similar Android smartwatches hit the store shelves—none of which really garnered much attention. The problem was becoming very clear: Google was not setting up these OEMs to succeed. It did not present a clear value proposition within the rigid system of Android Wear, nor did it provide the tools for manufacturers to create that value for itself.
How do I know this is true? Well—just take a look at what Samsung has done in the smartwatch space on its own with the Gear S line. Once the company realized that Android Wear was pretty much a dead end, Samsung moved over to Tizen to create smartwatches with its own unique design. There is some serious innovation happening with the Gear S3, both in terms of software and hardware. The result is that Tizen is actually ahead of Android Wear in terms of market share right now, mostly because of Samsung’s success in the space.
Android fragmentation is something that people have been talking about since the very first version of the operating system. Fragmentation happens because Android is an open operating system that any phone manufacturer can take and run with. That openness has led to some truly awful products with the Android stamp on it (remember the Facebook phone?), which has contributed to the public’s sometimes negative perception of Android devices.
However, it’s also led to some of the best smartphones ever made, like the Galaxy S8 or the OnePlus 5. If it weren’t for Google’s open-handed approach to smartphones, we’d never have products like these, which have a wide range of technologies, features, and value propositions. It’s clearly because Google has remained committed to this philosophy that it’s had success, not in spite of it.
Google had a decidedly different approach when it came to Android Wear—and the results have been extremely disappointing. The best of Android Wear, the beautiful Moto 360, has been discontinued due to lack of demand for the product.
So what can they do moving forward? I see two options: either Google releases a Pixel smartwatch that truly does something monumental both in terms of hardware and software. Like it had done with its Nexus devices year after year, Google needs to set the standard and move the ball forward in a significant way.
The other option is to open up Android Wear more to developers and manufacturers to let them experiment. If it’s not ready to take the lead, Google needs to get out of the way and let these companies do their thing. Android Wear might not be completely dead, some significant changes need to be made if it wants to stay alive moving forward.