Building an army of clones: Why Android Wear watches must diversify to survive

Manufacturers can't customise the OS so how do they make their models stand out?
Android Wear: Diversify to survive

In the year 2081, nobody is allowed to be smarter, better looking or more physically able than anybody else. Clever people's thoughts are interrupted with eye-watering blasts of noise; the beautiful are made to wear masks; the strong are saddled with heavy weights.

Android Wear manufacturers probably know how that feels.

We've just described Kurt Vonnegut's famous short story Harrison Bergeron, but Android Wear has its own Handicapper General to worry about in the form of Google. Android Wear manufacturers must all use the same operating system, with the same user interface, menus and features. And that's a problem, because not only does it sound a bit like Vonnegut's imagined dystopian future; it sounds awfully like the very recent past, too.

You can't always get what you want

Google limits customisation on Android Wear for a very good reason: it wants to avoid fragmentation, with endless versions of the same OS looking and working entirely differently. That happened in smartphones, with manufacturers crafting their own user interfaces and add-ons, and Google thinks that's a bad thing: it wants a consistent experience across all Android Wear devices.

Essential reading: Best smartwatches 2016

That's good for security - users don't have to wait for manufacturers to update their custom versions of Android Wear, something that's been a headache for years in Android phones - and it's certainly less confusing for consumers, but it's a problem for the manufacturers: how do you stand out when you're all making essentially the same product?

The worry for manufacturers is commoditisation, where the differences between products is rather like the difference between different brands of baked beans and most purchasing decisions are based on the price tag, not the ingredients.

In Windows PCs commoditisation has created a market where PC firms' profit margins are so small many have to install bloatware to stay in business. In Android phones it's created a market where one firm - Samsung - makes most of the money while the balance sheets of firms such as HTC use more red than the action scenes in Deadpool.

In a recent interview Huawei's VP of product management Yang Yong sighed about the lack of customisation:

"We want the users to feel that it's their own watch, not a standard watch," he said, trying to sound positive about the customisation options Google currently allows. "What we can differentiate from our competitors is that we have different watch faces."

Different watch faces? Curb your enthusiasm!

Be bold, not boring

How do you stand out from the crowd when the only tweak you can make to the UI is to offer a different watch face? There are two options: you can think about fashion, or you can think about function.

If you go for fashion, while you can't make a better mousetrap you can make your mousetrap more attractive than your rivals'. You can hire talented designers, you can splurge on better materials, and you can target specific groups of people.

Apple does this very well: there's no functional difference between a £15K Apple Watch Edition, a £1,350 Apple Watch Hermes and a £299 Apple Watch Sport, but the Edition is made of precious metal and the Hermes has the logo and a pretty leather strap. In Android, you can see similar branding in the form of the Tag Heuer Connected, which we described as "ridiculously good looking", and the rather more affordable second generation Moto 360.

Fashion and function needn't be exclusive. The runner-focused Moto 360 Sport is perfectly designed for its target market and its built-in GPS means you don't need to lug your phone around.

Similarly, the ruggedly handsome Casio Smart Outdoor Watch is built to military specifications for toughness and boasts a clever dual-layer screen for outdoor viewing and battery saving. The imminent and rather good looking Samsung Gear S2 Classic 3G will have an electronic SIM, which it hopes will usher in a new generation of wearable devices that can connect to cellular data networks.

Samsung has also invested heavily in creating an ecosystem of services, such as its Google Fit alternative S Health and its Milk Music radio streaming service, that it hopes will keep people loyal to its products.

One simple question

Like any product, Android Wear watches should be able to answer a simple question: why should I buy this one instead of that one? Not every watch's answer is "custom watch face!"

The Casio is the smartwatch that's tough enough for the Army. The Moto 360 Sport is the smartwatch for runners. The Tag is as beautiful and valuable as any mechanical Tag, plus all the benefits of modern technology. They may all run the same operating system, but they're all very different devices designed for very specific things - and that means they stand out in a market that's already beginning to feel rather full of me-too devices.

By limiting customisation of the OS, Google has made it harder for firms to stand out, but it hasn't made it impossible. Fortune will favour the bold and the beautiful.


  • pawces says:

    Android watches need to get cheaper to survive. I think pricing of tech brands like moto, sony and huawei is exaggerated. An android watch is simply a quarter (maybe even smaller) of an android smart phone, specs-wise and size-wise. Why are they priced (at launch) nearly as much as a flagship smartphone? Asking for anything above $150 for a smartwatch is hard to justify unless it comes in a body made by premium watch brands like fossil, tag, and what have you. Here's one way to look at it: strap a $500 flagship phone to your arm and call it an over-sized smartwatch. Now imagine you had to shrink it down so it would look not so ridiculous - you'd have to trim off some specs and features to get it down to an acceptable watch size. In the process you lost 2.5GB ram, 28GB storage, LTE/call/sms capability, 2000mah of battery, 5 inches of screen, the 13mp camera, and so on...oh and you still need a smartphone to pair it with. Would you even pay $250 for it now? These things are overpriced.

  • ChrisLaarman says:

    In short: I agree.

    In contrast to pawces I think that Android watches don't need to be cheaper. Rather, they need to justify their price by making their owner at least that more productive.

    I think that the difference between a smartwatch and a dumbwatch can only be in the functionality - but once the functionality is right, fashion may well come into play too. (And I remember dumbwatches cheaper than replacement batteries. So if you'd merely want the time from your watch, get one ot these - and then I could agree with pawces for such users.)

    That functionality, though, is a matter of software. The hardware could no no more (and no less!) than host it.

    So the difference could be in additional in- or output features (like a GPS receiver or extended gesture recognition). Or removable batteries, memory card slot, whatever. There could be software needed to make those features available, some device driver that hooks into Android Wear. Or maybe a watch running full Android (nothing new) that yet could act as an Android Wear host to an Android smartphone. Or how about a "retina" smartwatch that can double as a projector (using some dock with a lense)?

    That is where Android Wear (including full-Android wearables) could shine, because Apple could not allow itself such diversity.

    Coming to think of it: Google should most warmly welcome diversity in Android Wear, for this would tell quite a lot about the users, so it could target its ads far more precisely - and businesses would be happy to pay accordingly for that greater precision.

    But: this diversity would require research and development from the hardware vendors. We users would need to be willing to pay for that (as I started out saying), and the software developers would also need some certainty about revenues before investing their time in creating killer apps.

    It's up to us!

    (Me: SmartWatch 3 & Galaxy S6, Apple Watch & iPhone 6)

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