samsung galaxy gear 2 neo mwc jan 2014Image: Melissa Riofrio

How Samsung can still win the looming smartwatch wars in an Android Wear world

Android Wear looks spectacular. I’ve binge-watched Google’s reveal videos, peeled through the developer notes, and brain-vacuumed an independent tour of the SDK. I emphatically dig what I see, but now it’s time for a reality check. A Google smartwatch victory is not a fait accompli.

Sure, it might look like Google’s new smartwatch OS has what it takes to dominate the wearables space, and that Samsung is odd man out, banking on a Tizen-based ecosystem to realize its wrist-worn dreams. But we need to unpack a number of variables before anyone summarily hands victory to Google’s groovy new OS. Consider...

Android Wear may not work

What we know about Google’s OS is limited to a short, video-laden blog post, some enticing developer notes, and an SDK that runs a “preview” version of Android Wear in emulation. When the software hits the metal, so to speak, a different, less magical Android Wear may emerge. The user experience portrayed in Google’s two videos looks like everything I’ve ever wanted in a Google Now smartwatch. But Google’s first Project Glass video also looked like magic, while the Glass we use today doesn’t fulfill that original vision.

android wear stream 2

Will Android Wear’s voice control really deliver seamless interface navigation? It will need to, but Google may not have complete control over the matter. To some degree it will depend on hardware partner implementation—microphones—to deliver great user experience in this area.

Pivot to Samsung. It’s on its second smartwatch generation. Six months into its own Gear storyline, it’s had more time to improve not just voice control (something I dinged in the original Galaxy Gear), but other user-interface foibles. It would be premature to write off the Tizen-based Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit just because Android Wear looks so easy to use. We know very little about either smartwatch experience at this point. But we do know that Samsung has had time to respond to journalist and customer criticisms.

Pricing matters

None of the actors playing in this drama have revealed U.S. pricing, but early, unsubstantiated reports say Samsung’s Gear 2 will cost $300, while the Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit will sell for $200. Even $200 is still more pricey than a fancy steak dinner, but it might look attractive to the wearables-curious if Google’s Android Wear partners come in high.

moto 360 cafe Image: Motorola

How much will a Moto 360, circular display and all, cost when the watch ships this summer?

LG has announced that its Android Wear G Watch will be a “low barrier to entry for developers,” and we might be able to interpret this as, “Here’s some inexpensive development hardware; please go wild.” But Motorola, meanwhile, is trumpeting the breathtaking Moto 360 with a circular display. The last time Motorola sold mobile gear with a circular display, it charged some $2,000 for the Motorola Aura handset. Yep, there are three zeroes behind the two in the preceding sentence.

Bottom line: Pricing matters, and a $200 Gear Fit Neo might find a sweet spot in consumer hearts if the basic Samsung experience can deliver as well. 

Samsung does own the smartphone space after all

When you’re a tech journalist who has direct, pre-release access to practically every smartphone the mobile industry releases, you run the risk of subscribing to a version of the false equivalence fallacy: You test and write about all the devices, so you mistakenly begin to see them on somewhat equal footing, at least in terms of brand recognition.

But the fact of the matter is Samsung is the dominant player in smartphones, and where smartphones go, smartwatches follow. That’s positive news for the wearables that Samsung revealed at Mobile World Congress in February.

samsung galaxy gear 2 camera mwc jan 2014 Image: Melissa Riofrio

The Gear 2, along with its two stablemates, will inevitably be pushed, nudged, and paraded in front of the greater world at large.

Samsung has already demonstrated that it’s willing to pour more marketing dollars into wearables than any other manufacturer—you’ve surely seen the TV commercials. And as the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit roll out next month, they’ll enjoy support from Samsung’s sprawling retail and customer-outreach infrastructure. Add in the fact that Samsung’s new wearables will work with many more handsets that the original Galaxy Gear (addressing a serious complaint in many reviews), and we begin to see a path where Samsung carves out a tenable smartwatch business.

LG? Motorola? HTC? They’re names most consumers recognize, but their marketing war chests are tiny, and not that many world citizens are actually using their mobile gear at this time.

Oh, wait. Features sell hardware too

Samsung’s new wrist gadgets all feature heart rate monitors. The Gear 2 comes with a camera, and Samsung has already proven out great image capture on the original Galaxy Gear. And then there’s the luscious curved display on the Gear Fit. The display itself could be the one thing everyone talks about when Samsung’s new Gear lineup hits the public eye on April 11.

samsung gear fit slide

The Gear Fit’s curved display is a feature with (sorry) major hardware sex appeal.

In total, Samsung is selling a story about features. But, so far, in all we’ve absorbed about Android Wear hardware (and, granted, it’s been less than 24 hours), it would seem Google’s story is a Google Now story—end of story, full stop. As I wrote yesterday, Android Wear looks fan-bloody-tastic. But we don’t yet know how cameras will integrate with the OS, or what Android Wear really delivers beyond the basic Google Now experience, as wonderful as it is. 

And here’s another important question: Will Google’s various Android Wear partners be able to effectively differentiate user experience? The Moto 360 has a circular screen. The LG G Watch is square. Are these “features?” How will one Android Wear watch really be different from another? If nothing else, Samsung’s Gear line will distinguish itself with a glorious excess of features, whether they’re all successful or not.

Meet Samsung, the Android Wear partner

It's essential to note that Google listed Samsung in its roll call of Android Wear partners. It’s unclear if this means Google is working with Samsung to ensure Samsung phones support Android Wear watches; if Android Wear is being optimized for Samsung mobile chips; or if Samsung is developing an Android Wear-based wearable.

galaxy gear open 100160313 large

The original Galaxy Gear ran Android, and Samsung can always return to the family home.

But at this point Samsung can do anything it wants with Android Wear. It can release a Google Now watch just like all the Android universe small fry. It can also drop Tizen and switch back to Android if the laws of ecosystem economics require an about-face.

“Samsung is an announced partner for Android Wear, and we should see Android Wear devices from Samsung later this year,” says Daniel Matte, a Canalys analyst who focuses on the wearables market. “I’m not sure if Samsung will seriously commit to Tizen... It’s extremely challenging to drive developer interest and an application ecosystem around a new platform. Samsung’s best path to success may well be marketing execution, supply chain management, and speed based on the Android Wear platform—similar to its current success with Android.”

And so we wait...

As stated above, Android Wear is still rife with unknowns. And Samsung’s Gear lineup hasn’t yet been scrutinized beyond a few first looks. I wouldn’t claim Samsung will win the smartwatch wars, hence the cautious “can” phrasing in my headline. But it’s fun to conjecture who has the upper hand, if only at this early juncture.

Or who knows: An Apple iWatch might jump in and make all the other players look like amateurs. It’s a fascinating time for a fascinating hardware space. Yesterday was a very big day for wearables. Let the war games begin.

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