Earlier this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung announced their Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches. The announcement itself wasn't unexpected, save for the fact that Samsung has dropped the Android platform in favor of the open-source Tizen platform, becoming the first mainstream products to use the Tizen OS.
Samsung has, and will continue to be a strategic partner for Google. They consistently rank as one of the top sellers of Android products and neither company wants to lose business. But, what does this mean for Google's wearables strategy now that one of their rockstar partners has ditched Android for Tizen?
Google will, more than likely, continue to encourage third-party Android wearables; but where will they focus their collective energy—the face or the wrist? Focusing on face wear with Google Glass seems more in line with their "moonshot" strategy, but the expensive glasses are a riskier business move than a watch.
Still, with the public launch of Glass slated for later this year, Google could be targeting a riper market with Glass than they could with a smartwatch. According to Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky the biggest challenge for smartwatches isn't a crowded marketplace, it's people no longer wearing watches. Smartphones have almost eliminated the practical need for wearing a watch to tell the time, but research done by The Vision Council makes the claim that more than 75% of Americans need some sort of vision correction.
Earlier this year, Google stepped into that need by announcing prescription Google Glass frames. Google also announced that they partnered with VSP Vision Care to provide the prescription frames for Glass. Google has optometrists in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles who are trained to fit Google Glass, but they are expanding in 2014 with the goal of training 6,000 optometrists nationwide by the end of the year. To put that number in perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were a little more than 33,000 total optometrists jobs in the U.S. in 2012, meaning Google wants to train 18 percent of America's optometrists to fit Glass.
An obvious plus for Google would be if prescription Glass frames helped ease the social stigma of wearing Google Glass. Glass wearers have been stereotyped as pretentious, and the potential for privacy issues led one Seattle bar to ban Glass altogether. Google recently acknowledged the stereotype by releasing a list of do's and don'ts that explains how not to be a "glasshole."
If Wired's prediction of Her-like UI design ends up holding any weight, Google will be making a smart move by augmenting an existing accessory that serves a practical need and makes a fashion statement. Google is targeting existing behavior, not asking consumers to form a new habit. For those of us who wear glasses, they become an extension of how you see yourself, and Glass is capitalizing on that sense of identity, while simultaneously integrating wearable technology into an accessory that is already worn and needed by many people. It's obvious that Glass is important to Google, but only time will tell if it becomes their flagship wearable product.
"Glass has a tremendous amount of potential. We're excited by the Glassware our Explorers have created and look forward to seeing what businesses and developers come up with next as we move towards a larger consumer launch," a Google spokesperson said.
This isn't to say that Google is out of the smartwatch game for good, but if they will probably take a back seat to Glass. In addition to a rumored Nexus smartwatch, a Bloomberg report claims that HTC might be announcing a smartwatch based on Google Now. LG is also rumored to be collaborating with Google on a Google Now smartwatch, which could be related to the Nexus rumor. While smartwatches are obviously the more subtle option, Glass seems to be more useful.
Assuming wearables take off like everyone says they will, there isn't enough data to show if consumer prefer the face or the wrist. One thing is for certain—whether they are in the corner of your eye or on your wrist, Google plans to be in your life for a long time.
What do you think?
We want to know. Do you think wearable computing is the next big thing, or just a trend? Do you think Google should focus on Glass or keep making smartwatches?
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.