The LTE Apple Watch: Wasn’t Android there before?

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Why should the Apple Watch succeed where Android devices have failed before?

In my previous posts I discussed the opportunity for Apple to create a new ecosystem around the rumored LTE Apple Watch. In the first one I mentioned that cellular-enabled smart watches have existed before for the Android ecosystem, but still this was raised by some people.

I think it is fair to ask why Apple, arriving later than others to this market, should create an ecosystem when other devices have not been able to. Is the halo effect from the Apple brand enough to justify the difference?

What is important for the ecosystem

One thing that is important to stress is that, in most cases, being first is not that relevant to beat a market. Nokia had internet capable phones, with WiFi, great cameras and applications support before the iPhone was launched. But Nokia wasn’t able to create that ecosystem, while Apple was.

The key for the ecosystem comes from what I discussed in my first post:

  • The device must bring enough value by itself that will gain relevant user traction
  • But that traction must be incentive enough, and going forward bring enough returns, for developers to create apps that increase the value of the device

Those two elements must interact into a virtuous cycle.

But the problem for the cellular smart watches launched as companions for Android-based phones is that they did not provide the required environment to trigger that virtuous cycle. And so, being first to market didn’t help to conquer it.

The Problems with the Android wearable ecosystem

There are two main problems that prevent current Android smart watches being able to drive the new phone-less (r)evolution:

  • Unclear out-of-the-box value for phone-less use. When covering the out-of-the-box value for the LTE Apple Watch, I discussed several things that the device would allow. One key one was music support, and to be fair, Android Wear does support access to the Google Play Music library using an LTE access in the watch. Unfortunately for Google, while there are no public numbers around Google Play Music subscribers, the industry tends to agree that it is a significantly less popular service than Apple Music or Spotify, and Spotify does not support music playing from Android Wear (only controlling your smartphone). But the main issue for Android smartwatches is that there is no iMessage/FaceTime audio equivalent in Android to really free the users from the anxiety of leaving their phone behind. You could use Telegram or Hangouts, but those don’t have the mainstream appeal required to jumpstart an ecosystem. For an Android Wear device to be able to replace a phone, it would be required that the telecommunications operator will be able to support calls and texts from your main phone into that device too, and most carriers not all prepared to give that experience. In the Apple Watch, having AT&T NumberSync support, or getting DIGITS from T-Mobile, can can be an improvement over the basic iMessages and FaceTime audio functionality, but it is not a must. In Android it becomes basic, and unfortunately is not something most carriers can support easily.
  • Fragmentation. The attempts from Android hardware manufacturers to differentiate their products from the rest has been a problem for Android smartphones, and the smartwatches are not a different story. In Android watches each device manufacturer is going for slightly different proposals, in functionality and form factor. Android Wear 2.0 has unified the way to implement phone-free apps, but that fragmentation has made it difficult for the operating system to reach real devices. And there is still no “reference device” that developers can focus their efforts on. But if something clearly shows the size of this problem is that Samsung, who is Android’s most popular manufacturer for phones, is not even using Android Wear for their connected smartwatch products. The Samsung Galaxy Gear S3 does support LTE, but is based on Tizen, a proprietary operating system by Samsung. That further weakens the potential ecosystem for Android smartwatches, that would require developers also to create apps not only for different devices but even for different systems. In the meantime, Apple’s lack of fragmentation simplifies both customer’s choices and developer’s decisions to target a specific device for their developments.

So all in all, the situation for a connected Android watch is that it does not bring enough value by itself to leave the main phone behind (something that affects the non-LTE Apple Watch too, which is why it did not create an ecosystem before), and the fragmentation issues further reduce the incentive for developers to invest into creating standalone experiences that significantly change that situation.

A side note to all this is that the value for a standalone Apple Watch will be fully realized by its usage with paired Bluetooth headphones. Interaction for music, voice calls and Siri make much more sense that way, and an Android device powered by Google Assistant would be in an identical situation. In Apple’s case they will be able to build that scenario around a previous successful product: their AirPods, but in the case of Android devices, while pairing an Android Wear smartwatch with a Bluetooth headset is possible, that use case is not promoted and there is no “natural product” to do this. Users need to imagine that scenario, or find some suitable earphones to complement their smartwatch. In Apple’s case the reinforcement between AirPods and LTE Watch will be part of all marketing material — it already is — which will further strengthen the ecosystem.

A solution for the Android wearable ecosystem

Ironically, the success of an LTE Apple Watch can drive success also for Android Wear devices with LTE, as its potential success and perception of value will generate more demand for alternatives from users. Meanwhile, developers having built applications for the LTE Apple Watch may be more willing to then try to bring that experience to Android, specially if the effort is relatively small.

Google could help this by providing an application model in Android Wear that follows the Apple approach to some extent (so that migration does not require a full redesign of the solution, even if it requires a full recoding). But also a reference device, so that developers can focus on it, and new let new devices follow that lead to avoid being let out of that ecosystem.

A successful LTE Apple Watch, followed by Google launching a Pixel Watch that is heavily inspired by the Apple’s approach to phone-less behavior, and some AirPods-like connected buds to interact with the Google Assistant, may help consolidate the dual ecosystem (Apple+Google) also for the connected Watch space.


The LTE Apple Watch: Wasn’t Android there before? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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