Mobility

What the Apple Watch means for Android Wear

With the Apple Watch, the Cupertino tech giant launched into the smartwatch category on Tuesday. Here's what it means for one of its main competitors, Android Wear.

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Image: James Martin

Wearables have generated a lot of buzz, but have seen difficulty converting that buzz into genuine consumer interest. Smartwatches, conceptually, are an interesting idea; but most haven't been able to deliver enough features and experiences that are independent of what can be achieved by pulling your phone out of your pocket.

Earlier this year, Android announced that it was throwing its hat in the ring with a dedicated wearables platform known as Android Wear for smartwatches, and since then Samsung, Motorola, LG, and others have launches products based on Android Wear.

Today, Apple responded with its Apple Watch. The $349 wearable — one of the highest priced smartwatches to date — pairs with Apple's iPhone and offers a unique navigation system based on the watch's "crown"

The device allows the use of many of the key features of the new iPhones, such as mobile payments through NFC and health tracking. Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder said those features are what will drive the wearables industry forward to mass market appeal, which is something he said Android Wear has failed to do.

"Apple imbued the device with many of the real-world capabilities that make a smartwatch truly valuable," Gownder said. "Smartwatches shouldn't be an exercise in screen miniaturization; instead, they should help users to interact with the physical world more effectively.

With NFC, Apple Pay, and health and fitness monitoring, the Apple Watch interfaces with retailers, health care providers, and the human body to create a value proposition that's different from simply pulling a phone out of one's pocket."

It's clear that the Apple Watch offers more features than Android Wear currently does, but will that be enough to drive adoption. Of course, Android and iOS have long battled over feature sets and functionality. The question of who did it first or who did it best, or even whether those things matter, are often some of the most heated debates between supporters on both sides.

There is something beyond functionality to consider, and that is the product environment each device lives in. Android Wear vendors will, undoubtedly, need to bring similar features to their devices and the Android community will need to update the OS for similar functionality, but even if that is accomplished, it is unclear whether or not they can provide a similar experience in an open source environment. According to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, the battle will not play over the entire ecosystem.

"It's a great statement for the technology. Apple always sets a benchmark for a technology innovation step. While Google's Android platform will likely match many of the functions, it will battle Apple in the same way it does with smartphones, namely the benefits of a closed integrated system against the creativity of an open source platform."

While the Apple Watch has some of Apple's signature style with clean lines and curved edges, it doesn't look that different than many of the square-ish Android smartwatches. Of course, Motorola caused quite a stir with the announcement of the Moto 360 as the first round-faced smartwatch. Apple is banking on build quality with the sapphire display, and customizability with premium wrist straps and different size options.

Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe said that you can build any of those functions into a product that is clunky, but the real question is whether or not you can build it into something that is truly delightful to use. He believes that the Apple Watch seems like it will be one of the first smartwatches to appeal to people outside of the technology industry.

"At the end of the day, I don't think watches are sold on features. They're sold on design and on a certain amount of functionality," Howe said. "But, you've got to remember, there are still people who pay a few thousand dollars for a watch that does exactly one thing, which is tell time."

So, the grand battle for mobile, and now wearable, supremacy will continue to be fought by Google and Apple. Neither is backing down on product development, so only time will tell which ecosystem will win out, and it's important to keep in mind that the Apple Watch won't go on sale until the beginning of 2015.

"Apple has given a lot of attention to design aesthetics, customization and discoverability," said Ryan Martin, an analyst at 451 Research. "However, it will be important to look at Apple's new wearable devices in the context of what's available in the market at the time that it goes on sale, not necessarily today's device landscape."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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