Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Does Android have the advantage in the smartwatch war?

Earlier today, ReadWrite ran an article about two new Android Wear-based smartwatches: LG's G Watch R and Asus's ZenWatch. According to ReadWrite, both watches are significant improvements over previous Android-based smartwatches. The G Watch R has a round face, like the Motorola 360, but unlike the Motorola watch, it uses the entire watch face as the display. In addition, it looks more like a conventional watch, uses conventional watchbands, and has better battery life. The ZenWatch is rectangular like the Apple Watch and has an attractive design, but it uses conventional watchbands, has an AMOLED display and runs Asus's ZenUI user interface on top of Android Wear.

Neither of the new watches has all the features of the Apple Watch, but it's becoming increasingly clear that feature parity really isn't an issue. The watch you buy depends primarily on the smartphone you use--the Apple Watch only works with iPhones, while Android Wear watches only work with Android smartphones. Android smartphones had 84.7% of the worldwide market share (in units shipped) in Q2 2014 according to IDC vs. 11.7% for iOS. That means that about 88% of potential buyers are not in the market for an Apple Watch unless they also want to throw away their current smartphone and switch to an iPhone.

Android smartwatches have another, less-obvious advantage: There are several companies making them, and new smartwatches are being released all the time. Samsung, LG, Motorola/Lenovo and Asus are all making Android Wear-based smartwatches, and each company is on a more aggressive release cycle than Apple. Consider that Apple generally only releases a new version of a product once a year. That makes Apple's upgrades predictable, but it also means that it takes a year for new features to reach the market. In the Android world, on the other hand, smartphone makers are releasing new models all the time, often with features that are intentionally experimental, in order to gauge consumer interest. That enabled Android smartphone makers to get big screens and NFC for financial transactions out before Apple.

The Android smartwatch makers could have the same advantage over Apple. Their watches are evolving continuously, as new features and form factors are introduced, while Apple is a monoculture that will probably only release new watches once a year. That means that if a smartwatch vendor stumbles on a very popular combination of designs and features, Android smartwatch makers can clone the designs and features and get them to market faster than Apple can.

In my opinion, the jury is still out as to whether there really is a mass market for smartwatches. However, the Android ecosystem is in a far better position to take advantage of the market opportunity if and when someone comes up with the "killer app" of smartwatches.

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