Ignoring the entry point price difference between Android Wear Devices and the Apple Watch is hard to do. When the “low end” men’s Apple watch costs around $400, and a Moto 360 costs $250, it makes the cost of wearable experimentation very high for an Apple early adopter (OK, it’s not a trivial expenditure for an Android Wear user either).
I don’t, however, think that success in this market is all about finding the right price. It is much more about delivering a unique experience that justifies a consumer’s purchase, and makes wearable usage something that becomes integrated into someone’s daily routine.
So far, I don’t see Android Wear devices having cracked the code, based on my own family’s experience. When everyone still is still carrying their phone, which delivers all the same basic functions as first-gen wearables (notifications, haptic silent alerts, timekeeping, voice navigation, activity tracking), other than the “style”/Technorati points gained by wearing a smartwatch, there is little else, in terms of value of adopting daily smartwatch use. It just becomes another thing to remember to charge each night.
That said, both Apple and Google are investing lots to be a leader in the wearables sector. The challenge is which one is making the right calls at this early juncture. Over the last 6 days, there were two announcements on the Android Wear front that make me believe that, while this is a multi-year battle in its earliest stages, Google is making the better initial calls on delivering a compelling wearable experience.
First Announcement: Activating WiFi on Android Wear devices
Pain point being addressed: The need to be in Bluetooth range of your phone (and your phone in 3G/LTE/WiFi connectivity) to have your wearable deliver web-connected value to you.
Both Apple and Google need your watch to be fully connected to allow voice navigation and other features to operate. That limits when and where I can use my watch. In a world where you work, live and entertain yourself in locations with perfectly good WiFi networks, why can’t your wearable take full advantage of that as a connectivity solution, and eliminate the need of proximity to a data-connected phone?
Google announced last week that it is going to support direct WiFi communication from WiFi-chip enabled smartwatches (even in older devices, like the Samsung Gear Live) in its next release. That means things like having the ability to get notifications and use Google Now without the whole Bluetooth need. I think that is a fundamental shift in the smartwatch base use case. Will it come with its own challenges? Yes – WiFi radios are notoriously higher in power consumption, so there is work to do to figure out battery management, but having personally worked in the world of ultra-low power WiFi for the last 24 months, that is a solvable problem.
Apple Watch does have some WiFi-enabled functionality. You saw Kevin Lynch talk about the notifications and call handling that the Apple Watch will support over a home’s WiFi network. The challenge is that we have yet to see if any non-Apple Watch apps will have “open” access to WiFi at any point in the near future. I don’t see that happening in 2015.
Second Announcement: Opening Google Now To Third Party Apps
Pain point being addressed: Being restricted to Google/Apple base notification services for push communications.
At SXSW, Google unveiled that they have been working with 30 popular app companies on being part of the first wave of people using the new Google Now API, and are looking to create an open API that the full development community can soon access.
The aspired-to experience here is a better form of contextually-aware, rich-content messaging to a wearable user. That is a huge need in the wearable space. No matter how innovative the UI of a wearable device may be, the small form factor of a smartwatch makes it the wrong place to do lots of settings manipulation. Cloud services need to learn your preferences, and then, when combining it with context (location, activity, time of day, etc.), push the right messages to you that deliver the most value. That is Google Now’s underlying aspiration, and they are willing to allow other (non-Google) apps to compete for a user’s attention, and tune the overall experience based on an individual’s behaviors and preferences.
The bonus of the Google effort here for third party developers? Enabling voice recognition and service navigation via Google Now. WhatsApp already wants to voice-enable their experience within Android Wear. This opening up of voice capabilities for apps can be the trump card that makes the Google experience a winner for consumers.
It has been easy for people to take a shot at the Apple Watch since its launch, but I am sure they are working hard to make it a winner. That said, having had nearly a year’s head start, it looks like Google and the Android Wear team are learning a lot from their in-the-field experiences, and have an aggressive, more open (from a networking and app perspective) playbook that will make them a tough competitor in this nascent wearables market. The challenge will be whether their intellectual leadership can translate into market-share leadership.