We’re witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the smartwatch
After several months of delays, an overhaul of its original vision, and some wrangling of hardware partners, Google’s new smartwatch software, Android Wear 2.0, launches this week.
But it comes after months of dour headlines for smartwatches and wearable gadgets. Tech geeks may hyperventilate over the newest wrist computer, but it’s becoming apparent that most people are increasingly skeptical of the category.
Pebble, the startup darling that was credited with popularizing the concept of a modern smartwatch, was forced to shut down after poor sales and sell itself to Fitbit at a major loss.
Fitbit, despite its popularity, has had its own struggles, laying off 6% of its employees after disappointing holiday sales. Apple greatly pared down the capabilities of the Apple Watch, instead focusing the software on fitness-tracking and app notifications. Jawbone hasn’t released a new product in nearly two years and has stopped selling devices altogether as it prepares to release a clinical-grade health tracker.
And several of Google’s most important Android Wear partners, such as Samsung, Motorola, and Huawei, have essentially abandoned Google’s software. (Motorola, once a marquee Android Wear partner, had the strongest opposition to the operating system, citing a lack of “broad appeal” for smartwatches.)
What you’re witnessing is the slow-motion collapse of the smartwatch. The category will morph into something else, but it will ultimately fail to live up to the promise of being a new kind of computing platform that frees us from the smartphone.
Android Wear 2.0, which will debut this week on two new smartwatches made by LG and roll out to a handful of existing Android watches soon, is something of a reset for Google’s smartwatch ambitions. Like we saw with the Apple Watch last year, many features have been dialed back in Android Wear to focus on a handful of activities such as messaging and fitness tracking.
I’ve been testing one of those watches: the $349 LG Watch Sport. It’s a heavy and chunky monstrosity that’s tough for me to recommend to just about anyone.
But the hardware isn’t the whole story. This is a make-or-break moment for Google’s smartwatch experiment, and I’m not confident it’s going to work.
Google is making a weak case for Android Wear. It’s not building its own products, instead relying on fashion brands like Michael Kors and Fossil to carry the torch. This is despite Google’s increased investment in excellent hardware, like the new Pixel phone and Home connected speaker that are designed to push the Android ecosystem forward.
A member of the Android Wear team told me last week that the reason Google isn’t making its own smartwatch is because Google sees smartwatches as more of an open ecosystem driven by personal style, so it wants to let in as many partners as possible.
That’s one way to look at it.
The other way to look at it is Google sees the same writing on the wall that many of its other partners have, and time is running out to prove Wear is a viable platform. Instead of investing resources in building its own smartwatch, it put more of the burden on its partner LG. (Google did say Android Wear is gaining momentum, with holiday activations up 70% from the year before, but it declined to provide hard numbers. Take that stat with a healthy dose of skepticism.)
The most recent data doesn’t help Google’s case either.
According to a new report published this week by the research firm Canalys, 49% of smartwatches sold in 2016 were made by Apple, followed by Fitbit at 17% and Samsung at 15%. None of Google’s Android Wear partners even made the list; they were lumped into the “other” category.
I stand by what I said a few months ago: People don’t want smartwatches. They want an Apple Watch or a basic fitness tracker like a Fitbit.
After several days with the LG Watch Sport, I don’t see anything in Android Wear that could turn things around. While Android Wear has been cleaned up and streamlined quite a bit — read my colleague Avery Hartmans’ review for more details — there’s no killer feature that makes me confident in the platform’s longevity. It’s just another smartwatch, the latest attempt to force a product category people don’t need or want.
The only glimmers of hope I found were in the fitness app’s ability to track reps while you lift weights or perform other strength exercises like sit-ups. I haven’t seen a fitness tracker do that yet, and it could turn into a killer feature for the category.
The watch also has a 4G connection, so you can stream music directly to the device. Pair it with a set of Bluetooth headphones, and you can leave your phone at home while you work out. I have a feeling this is closer to what future wearables will be like — not a shrunken-down smartphone you wear on your wrist. If someone made a simple fitness tracker that let me stream music and do nothing else, I’d buy it immediately.
But for now, I have a feeling Android Wear will continue to muddle along with the rest of the smartwatches.