Why Apple's iWatch Already Beats Android Wear (Op-Ed)

The reviews are in for the first Android Wear-powered smartwatches, and they look about as glowing as the ones for "Transformers: Age of Extinction." In fact, the way the smartwatch evolution is looking right now, the whole category could be extinct before you say "fad." But don't roll the credits just yet.

By delivering a platform that feels half-baked, Google has left the door wide open for Apple's iWatch, expected this fall. This war may not even be close.

To understand why Apple now has the upper hand, you first need to look at where Android Wear falls short on launch devices such as the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live. The platform gets some things right, including delivering alerts based on the time of day and your location. (For example, when you leave for the airport, the device will display your flight info on your wrist.) I also like how Google has integrated voice recognition — without turning the watch into a literal phone. Just say, "OK, Google," and ask your question, schedule an appointment and so on.

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The problem with Android Wear is that it doesn't do enough to justify its existence. One major flaw is that you can't yet decide which contacts get to buzz your wrist. It's all or nothing, although Google says customization is on the way. The interface is also way too swipe-happy. My favorite example: The Music card/app on the watch uses separate screens for pause, skip and back buttons. Is this a joke?

Then there's the hardware itself. Both the LG G Watch and Gear Live have displays that are extremely difficult to read outdoors. They're also bulky, though the G Watch is slimmer, and they both last about a day on a charge. No one wants to juice up their watch every night along with their smartphone. The sexier circular Moto 360 looks like it has more promise, but the underlying Android Wear platform needs more love, both from developers and Google, before it resonates with shoppers.

Meanwhile, Apple is reportedly working on an iWatch that looks like it will beat Android Wear on design, app ecosystem and — most importantly — focus. Instead of attempting to be an all-purpose shrunken smartphone, the iWatch will reportedly focus on fitness and health. Yes, Android Wear has a step counter built in, and the Gear Live features a heart-rate monitor, but the iWatch looks like it will be much more robust in this department.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the iWatch will have 10 different sensors to track health and fitness. Like today's popular fitness trackers, the device will supposedly measure steps taken, calories burned, sleep quality, heart rate, and even glucose and sweat. The device will presumably sync with the iPhone 6's Health app, but I get the feeling the iWatch will be able to do a lot of stuff even when your smartphone isn't with you. Android Wear watches become veritable doorstops without their companion handsets.

As for design, the iWatch will reportedly sport a curved glass body that looks less like a clunky calculator watch that's been ripped into the present and more like a futuristic fashion statement. It's no coincidence that Apple hired the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent to work on "special projects." The only inspired smartwatch design I've seen up until now is the Samsung Gear Fit, with its curved OLED display. I expect an even more polished device from Apple.

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iWatch rumors also suggest the device win run iOS, although it will likely be a scaled-down version with apps optimized for its smaller display. There are 22 apps for Android Wear in the Google Play store as of this writing, including IFTTT, Pinterest and Fly Delta. However, these "apps" aren't native; they're merely phone apps that provide an enhanced notification and control experience on the watch. I can almost guarantee that dozens of compelling apps will be available for Apple's wearable on day one.

Can Android Wear recover from what looks like a dud of a launch? Perhaps, but I find it disappointingly ironic how little differentiation is allowed with Google's platform. Other than the physical design, it doesn't seem as though watch makers have much — if any — freedom to innovate on top of the OS. This is the sort of walled-garden approach I'd expect from Apple, not Google.

To be fair, more Android Wear watches are on the way from the likes of Fossil and HTC, and the platform is just getting off the ground. But at this stage, it looks like Apple's iWatch will be the wearable to beat.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.