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Android Wear watches are stylish and sporty now – will they sell?

Android Wear is just over two years old. It was announced in March 2014, with more details in June and smartwatch launches beginning that summer. Don’t pretend you don’t remember the hype over the original Moto 360, we were right there alongside you.

With this year’s Google I/O coming up on 18 May, now is as good a time as any to take a look at how Android Wear has changed, how sales are doing and what’s next in 2016 and beyond.

The tech in wearable tech

So here’s where we’re at. Google has been pushing out Wear updates for existing smartwatches, made by familiar tech names, at a decent rate over 2015 and early 2016. The latest, dubbed Marshmallow, brought new voice controls and gestures as well as the ability to make and take calls for specific smartwatches.

So the OS itself has transformed into a more intuitive and more useful wearable tech platform, with respectable if not spectacular third party apps, and Google has let manufacturers offer different features such as standalone 3G/4G and phone calls. Google has enlisted the help of Mobvoi to get Chinese apps and services onto Wear watches like the Moto 360 and Huawei Watch in China, a big potential market for wearable tech. So there’s still some ways to go but these are all good moves.

That first 2014/2015 wave of Android Wear launches came courtesy of LG, Samsung, Sony, Motorola, Asus and Huawei. But Google is managing to keep quality high by being very selective with its partnerships.

A good example of this is the Chinese company Bluboo which claimed that its too-good-to-be-true $99 Xwatch would launch running Android Wear in February. Fast forward to April and it still hasn’t turned up. Similarly, the Com1 smartwatch was pulled from Indiegogo in 2014 as it lacked an Android Wear license.

So how’s about those sales? Well, Android Wear has lagged behind Apple pretty much since the Watch launched last year and even prior to that, sales weren’t huge. By Strategy Analytics’ estimates published this week, 0.9 million smartwatches that weren’t made by Apple or Samsung were sold in Q1 of 2015. This rose to just 1.4 million in Q1 of 2016, having peaked at 1.7 million over the holiday period. Apple is selling more smartwatches than all the other manufacturers put together including Samsung and its latest smartwatch, the Gear S2, which runs Tizen.

In fact, the usual tech suspects have been quite quiet on the Android Wear front of late, since the Moto 360 2 and ZenWatch 2 in September 2015. Samsung’s switch back to Tizen could be seen as a sign that it was dissatisfied with slow sales and Sony hasn’t released a smartwatch since 2014’s SmartWatch 3 which you can now buy for less than $150. And where’s the HTC One Android Wear watch, anyway?

Motorola has focused on customisation and Huawei has released new, blingy models of its existing smartwatch. But Motorola and Huawei make great phones and increasingly, since the Tag Heuer Connected, Android Wear watches are being seen as just that – watches. So who makes watches?

Fashion! Luxury! Adventure!

Android Wear in 2016 looks very different to what we’ve seen before. Last year’s Tag Heuer Connected was an exception to the rule, a real swanky watch with its own real swanky event in New York. But suddenly we can’t keep up with the fashion releases.

Casio and Nixon both announced their first smartwatches, in the form of the adventurer inclined WSD F10 (which sadly isn’t getting a global release just yet) and The Mission, an intriguing, watersports-friendly GPS watch.

Nixon’s The Mission is notable as it’s really not just another pretty face for Android Wear – it has the elusive GPS tracking that so many sports smartwatches can’t manage to include, it is water resistant to 100m but it still has a microphone for Google voice controls, it’s military grade dust and shock resistant. There’s also a ton of sensors suitable for cyclists, surfers and skiiers.

Now more than ever, Android Wear offers a sense of individuality and compelling features that was missing in the tech focused launches of 2014 and 2015. Lifestyle companies know what they’re selling and how to work with the likes of Google, Intel and others to make it happen.

When it comes to pretty faces, the Fossil Group, which now owns Misfit, is seemingly Android Wearifying its bestselling watches and accessories across all its brands. For now, we have the Fossil Q Marshal and the Fossil Q Wander and the two mysterious Michael Kors Access smartwatches, all announced at Baselworld. None of these products move the technology on in any way (they even feature the dreaded flat tyre) but they do provide the style, fashion and brand power that could really sell.

By the end of 2016, we will get wearables from other Fossil brands including Diesel, Kate Spade, Emporio Armani, Misfit and Skagen. It’s not confirmed that all these brands will get Android Wear watches but we’re sure some will. Diesel is a pretty safe bet, for example.

All of these fashion Wear watches will benefit from the software updates as well as extras such as exclusive designer watch faces. So how will they sell? LVMH stepped up production of its first luxury Android Wear watch, the Tag Heuer Connected, from 1,200 to 2,000 units a week late last year as demand exceeded expectations. But this was a $1,500 Tag watch so those low numbers (for a tech product) aren’t a good indicator for Fossil, Casio and Nixon. No word yet on Fossil Q Founder sales since December 2015 so that’s no help either.

As our Executive editor James Stables argued this week, smartwatch success should now be judged more as a fashion or watch product than a tech product. And it’s likely the individual brands will take this approach themselves, comparing smart Fossil watch sales to dumb Fossil watch sales, not Samsung smartphone sales. One interesting question is will Fossil, Tag, Casio, Nixon and a bunch of fashion designers be able to shift more smartwatches (in total) than Apple? If not, smartwatches could essentially be limited to tech nerds and Apple fans.

What to expect at Google I/O

If there are any more new Android Wear watches announced at Google I/O, which runs from 18 – 20 May, expect them to come from fashion or sports/adventure brands. Unless we get a surprise Sony SmartWatch 4, that is.

There’s also always the chance that the focus this year will be on Android N, virtual reality and AI instead, especially as there was so much Android Wear news out of this year’s Baselworld. Either way, we’ll be reporting live from I/O so stick with us if you’re invested in what Google – and everyone else – does next with Android Wear.

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