Samsung: We'll differentiate our Android Wear smartwatch over time

The company cannot overlay its own software on Android Wear devices, such as its upcoming Gear Live smartwatch, but will preload certain features and services, executives tell CNET.

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Samsung Gear Live, set for release on July 7, includes customized clock faces by Samsung, including the one here. Josh Miller/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Android Wear, Google's new software for wearables, is designed to provide a "pure" Google experience, but it doesn't quite spell the death of preloaded apps and services from device makers.

Samsung executives said the Korean company won't overlay its own software -- such as its TouchWiz interface or Magazine UX -- on its Android Wear smartwatch called Gear Live. (Doing so is banned by Google, at least right now, they said.) But the company will take advantage of Google's open software development kit to create its own unique services and features for its upcoming smartwatch and other potential Android Wear wearable devices, they said.

Check out CNET's first impressions of the Gear Live.

"Android Wear is 100 percent built around Google services today on Day 1," Christopher Belter, a director of marketing for Samsung's US mobile business, told CNET in an interview late Wednesday. "I don't know what the time frame is, but I guess it would be our goal to build, like we do on our phones, some of our own services for the Wear environment."

Samsung's participation in the Android Wear program is the latest example of the strengthening relationship between the consumer electronics conglomerate and Google. It marks a reversal from just two years ago, when the tech titans privately tussled over their parts of the Android experience.

The Gear Live smartwatch, which offers a purer Google experience than Samsung's previous smartwatches, is proof that Samsung is willing to play nice. Samsung, like all other equipment manufacturers, must walk the line between offering a pure Google experience and creating differentiated services and features to stand out.

Android Wear is still in its infancy. On Wednesday, Google and its partners unveiled the first devices with this modified version of the Android mobile operating system that's designed specifically for smartwatches and other Internet-connected wearables. Android Wear promises a simple user interface, instant notifications, and the ability to perform tasks, like texting friends, using voice commands.

Samsung, LG, and Motorola will provide the first three Android Wear smartwatches: the $199 Gear Live, the $229 G Watch, and the yet-to-be-priced Moto 360, respectively. The Samsung and LG smartwatches are available for preorder and will be released July 7. Motorola's will launch later in the summer.

Of the three companies, Samsung has the most experience in wearables. The company introduced its first smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, in September. The device ran Google's Android mobile OS, but Samsung switched to its own open-source software, called Tizen, for the second generation of Gear and the Gear 2 Neo smartwatches. Samsung even pushed out a software update earlier this month that converted the first Gear's operating system to Tizen. Its Gear Fit fitness band, meanwhile, runs a real-time operating system designed to improve battery life.

In each case, Samsung designed the user interfaces powering the devices. It also created many of the apps and worked with developers to spur interest in its devices.

With Android Wear, Samsung takes a step back from that process, but the company still plans to find ways to make its devices different from all the other upcoming Android Wear gadgets. Creating its own apps and services -- and preloading them on the Gear Live smartwatch -- is one way to do that. So is including unique hardware design and features, such as the heart-rate monitor.

Samsung's early software efforts have been mixed, however. Its TouchWiz user interface, which is the software layered on top of Android, has been reviled by many Android purists who want a less cluttered design. When the Galaxy S4 smartphone launched in early 2013, some critics slammed the amount of "bloatware," or pre-installed and unremovable programs such as S Translate and S Voice. And CNET's Jessica Dolcourt called TouchWiz "tired and outdated" ahead of the Galaxy S5 launch in February.

Samsung has taken some steps to improve its software capabilities by creating new businesses such as the Media Solutions Center and by hiring experienced user interface designers. It redesigned TouchWiz in favor of its new Magazine UX, starting with the Galaxy Tab Pro tablets that it unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. And with the Galaxy S5, announced in February, Samsung pulled back on preloading features and services, instead giving users the option to install Samsung-built apps. Reports said Samsung's focus on software had angered Google, and the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant convinced Samsung to change course.

For Google, Android Wear marks an effort to exert even more control over its operating system. Android is open source, but it's vital for Google to have its services front and center. Since it's not charging companies for using Android, it has to generate money through serving advertisements on popular apps such as Google Maps. However, most Android vendors -- including Samsung with TouchWiz and Magazine UX -- have tended to push their own software features over those from Google.

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"The core objective of Android has always been to provide the widest possible audience for Google's services, but over the last several years Google has seen a variety of device vendors customize, tweak and fork Android in ways that either submerge Google's services beneath their own or strip them out entirely," said JackDaw research analyst Jan Dawson.

Android Wear should help force Google's services to the forefront, but that doesn't mean Samsung and other vendors will fade into the background entirely.

Even out of the box, Samsung's Gear Live includes some tweaks unique to the company. For instance, the Gear Live software comes with 12 different watch faces -- seven from Google and five from Samsung, executives from the company told CNET. It also has two stopwatches, one from Google and one from Samsung.

Then there's the heart rate monitor. So far, the app is standalone and just gives users a live reading, but soon, Samsung will integrate the feature with the S Health app on its phones and tablets, said Ikseon Kang, the Samsung senior manager in charge of product planning for the Gear Live. Samsung also may preload the S Health app on the Gear Live in the future, he said. And it plans to integrate its other services -- like its ChatOn messaging app -- with Gear Live, as well.

"We have a plan to integrate those kinds of services," Kang said. "But today we are focusing on Google-based services."

Google surely hopes that focus won't change too quickly.

For more information, see all of Google I/O news.

 

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