The smartwatch market is still very young, but Google just planted a very large flag in the ground. Its new Android Wear platform, which is designed to power all sorts of wearable gadgets but will start with smartwatches, represents a serious threat to competing devices like the Pebble Steel and upcoming challengers like the Samsung Gear 2.
In fact, the clock is now ticking for all competing smartwatches. Here's why.
Contextual and Personal
Until now, smartwatches have mostly delivered incoming alerts to your wrist from your smartphone. What's been missing? Context. The Android Wear platform leverages the same contextual intelligence offered by Google Now available on smartphones. So, for example, your smartwatch will know when and where your next appointment is, and will display that info right on your wrist. By the same token, your Android Wear will know your favorite teams, and will display scores only from the games you care about.
And because your Android Wear watch knows where you are, you should be able to quickly pull up your airline boarding pass right on your wrist at the airport.
Voice Used the Right Way
If you look at the promo videos Google created for Android Wear watches, you don't see people talking to other people from their wrists. That's because it's an obnoxious behavior. Yes, the Samsung Gear 2 and Gear Neo let you chat Dick Tracy-style with other callers, but no one wants you to hear you yell into your wrist in public.
With Android Wear, Google is highlighting more practical voice functionality. You can ask Google questions like, "What good steakhouses are nearby?" Or, you can quickly respond to incoming text messages when your hands are otherwise full. There are some folks who will prefer to at least have the option to dial out from their watch, but I'm not one of them.
Designed for People First, Not Geeks
We called the design of the Pebble Steel elegant in our review, thanks to its stainless-steel face, but it has a black-and-white screen with physical buttons. The upcoming Moto 360 has a sleeker, circular aesthetic and a color touch screen, making it look and feel more futuristic, without being complicated. And while the new Samsung Gear 2 has a slimmer design than its predecessor's, it's not as svelte as what Motorola and LG are showing off.
Granted, we have not yet gone hands-on with an Android Wear smartwatch, but we like what we've seen so far.
A Unified Platform = Major Developer Support
Between the Sony SmartWatch 2, Pebble, Samsung Gear and other smartwatches, there are too many ecosystem silos for developers to keep tabs on. In the case of Android Wear, there will be a single platform that many manufacturers (Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung) and chip makers (Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, Mediatek and Qualcomm) can rally around. Google has already released a developer preview, which the company says will allow devs to tailor their existing app notifications for watches.
But will there be actual apps and a separate app store? Google confirmed to us that native experiences will come later with the official SDK. Frankly, I'm not sure consumers want to keep track of a whole other set of apps on their watches. If integrated the right way, Android Wear devices will provide all the info users need, without additional hassle. But its nice to know apps (or experiences resembling apps) are coming.
In the smartwatch world, right now, it looks like Google's Android Wear and Apple's rumored iWatch will be the two platforms to beat. Samsung could make some waves with its Gear sequels — and they offer unique features, like a built-in camera — but it just got that much harder for developers to get behind its Tizen-powered devices. In other words, there's a reason Samsung is one of Android Wear's hardware partners, too. The company simply can't ignore the power of Google.
Anyone else making a smartwatch not powered by Android Wear should now take the time to rethink their business plans. Pebble’s CEO doesn’t seem to be worried, saying that “It’s exciting to see this market grow so quickly -- enabling more interesting use cases and keeping all of us laser-focused on creating the very best user experiences we can.” Yes, but right now the more intuitive user experience looks like what Android Wear promises.