Editorial: “Luxury” Brands Reinvigorate a Waning Android Wear as Tech OEMs Missed Their Target

Editorial: “Luxury” Brands Reinvigorate a Waning Android Wear as Tech OEMs Missed Their Target

Last year Android Wear looked to be in a fairly precarious situation. The LG Urbane LTE was finally launched after a lengthy delay and sales pull, Lenovo/Motorola announced they would not be  releasing a new wearable device in the next year, and Google delayed the Wear 2.0 update for months.

All of this was occurring at the same time as Apple was releasing the second generation of the Apple Watch, and Samsung was announcing the S3 series; both ended up being excellent devices and they set the benchmark for what a modern wearable should be. However, despite the terrible rollout of Android Wear 2.0, the platform is showing new springs of life this week as numerous watchmakers announced Wear-powered devices hitting throughout the year. Are we seeing the second coming of Android Wear?

Apple has made it their goal to target luxury brands and top influencers with specialized marketing and partnerships like the outrageously-priced Hermes edition watch and bands.  They have also released gold and ceramic editions to help differentiate those with a higher level of income/class and this has helped set the Apple Watch apart from the crowd of mainstream and consumerized wearables. But early last year, mid-to-high end watchmaker Fossil looked to dip its toes in the smartwatch market and released of the admittedly fairly-boring Q series of watches. These watches were rather bulky, expensive, and shared Motorola’s love for not-quite-circular displays, and have not really led to the great resurgence Fossil needed.

This slow downturn many watchmakers are seeing was forecast when the Apple Watch initially launched since many iPhone users are the same that generally fall into $300 – $1,000 watch market, causing the Apple Watch to chip away at these brands. While the uber-premium market may not have much to fear; the more mass-market designer timepieces from companies like Fossil, Michael Kors, Diesel, and TAG Heuer have seen a decline due to the uptick in smartwatch popularity and directly, the Apple Watch. But at Baselworld 2017, those same brands are fighting back, and suddenly Android Wear is exciting… really exciting.

So far I have counted over 16 new Android Wear smartwatches from designer brands like
Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, and Guess all slated to arrive some time this year and announced this past week. The basis of these watches is simple offering a round LCD or AMOLED display, Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, side crown or button, and a classy look. The interesting thing is that many of these watches have forgone features like NFC and LTE and some are even dropping the heart rate monitor, much like ASUS did with the ZenWatch 3. These feature removals and omissions go to show the market that these brands are targeting.

While devices from tech brands like the LG Watch Sport and Gear S3 are targeting the “do it all” gadget loving multitaskers who want pedometers, heart rate sensors, mobile payments, and more; these luxury brands are targeting regular watch users who want a little gadget to go with their class. They are offering a no-frills experience that is likely easier to manufacture and offers superior battery life, really boiling the smartwatch down to its basics. This is something that we have seen in phones as well with a significant downward trend in the amount of auxiliary functions packed into a phone. This is allowing for manufacturers to focus more on the core experience and quality of manufacturing, and less on features that may be better suited to another device, or just simply shouldn’t exist.

While the ultimate success of Android Wear is yet to be seen, these are promising signs that will likely bring positive press and notoriety to the platform. Google did the right thing with Android Wear by limiting what OEMs were allowed to modify and change for their own whims, if only because such model makes more sense on a watch than on a phone. While it did push away Samsung and potentially other brands who want their own interface, there’s no doubt that it made the platform more attractive for companies like these that do not have huge software development teams. Much of the core of Android Wear devices is the same hardware, making development for various devices much easier to handle for small teams. Adding branding, some custom watch faces, and delivering it to the consumer is a much easier risk to take, especially if they don’t pan out in the future.

I have a lot of criticisms about Android Wear and how Google is handling the platform, much of which I have written about here, here and here. But the important thing about this new wave of Android Wear devices is that generally they aren’t for us as I know I will likely never wear a Guess or Michael Kors branded smartwatch. However, there is a large group that can be drawn in through, a new market that wants something more traditionalist and less tech-focused like an Apple Watch or LG Watch Sport. Brand name and loyalty goes very far in this market and Google has appealed to these traditional timepiece brands with Android Wear by polishing the experience, packaging it for them and further improving iOS compatibility for the basic features these watches bring to the table.

These watches are not meant to push the boundaries of what a smart wearable can do, instead they push the boundaries of what a smart wearable is, blurring the lines between gadget and timepiece. Google and luxury watchmaker brands are hoping that it just might be enough to make a monumental impact in the future of the platform.

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