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Wearable Tech

For Motorola's latest smartwatch, it's all about freedom of choice

Motorola's head of design, Jim Wicks, isn't concerned about facing off against the Apple Watch. The highly customizable Moto 360? "It's a better product," he says.

The Moto 360 comes in a variety of colors and materials and two sizes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola's smartwatch head start has long since dissipated.

When Motorola launched its Moto 360 a year ago, it turned heads as the first smartwatch that felt like a watch -- one that employed premium materials such as a leather strap and a round, stainless steel body.

But its follow-up to the original enters an entirely different market. The Moto 360 is no longer the only round smartwatch in the market -- multiple companies have followed suit. Others have added even more premium materials such as sapphire glass. And, of course, there's the Apple Watch.

So how does Motorola survive in this brave, new smartwatch world? By reinforcing the notion of freedom when it comes to customization. The company on Wednesday unveiled a new Moto 360, which comes in two sizes and offers even more choices for people looking to tweak the look with different materials. In the coming months, Motorola will launch a Sport version with a GPS and waterproof body.

Motorola is just one of many companies unveiling smartwatches this week, underscoring the tech industry's desire for the so-called wearables category to take off. Consumers, however, have been less enthusiastic, and sales and interest have yet to escalate. The Moto 360 introduction comes just two days after Samsung showed off its round Gear S2 smartwatch. A handful of other players are slated to make similar announcements this week at the IFA consumer electronics trade show in Berlin.

Jim Wicks, Motorola's head of design, isn't worried about competition, and offered up some strong words against its potentially most dangerous rival, Apple.

"It's a better product," Wicks said about the Moto 360 versus the Apple Watch.

Motorola's Moto Maker online customization service, which allows you to build your own version of the Moto 360 or Motorola's smartphones for a premium price, is an advantage no one else has, Wick said Tuesday in an interview at the sidelines of a New York press conference ahead of the official unveiling. "There's much more personalization to it," he said.

The price of the Moto 360 reflects his confidence; the smartwatch starts at $299 and can rise to $429 depending on the options. The Moto 360 Sport would sell at around the same range, although Wicks declined to provide the specific price.

The original Moto 360 initially sold for $250.

The Apple Watch effect

The Apple Watch has had a positive impact on the wearables market, bringing awareness and interest in smartwatches, Wicks said. But that's where the compliments end.

"Apple spends a lot on advertising, but more advertising doesn't necessarily mean a better product," he said.

It's hard to deny that Apple has had some success in this area. The Apple Watch, which features more of a rectangular face with curved corners, controls an estimated 75 percent of the market, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. While Apple doesn't give out numbers, the firm believes it sold 4 million units.

The Apple Watch has brought mainstream attention to smartwatches.

CNET

Motorola similarly hasn't provided numbers for its Moto 360, but analysts believe it is the top-selling watch running on Google's Android Wear, a stripped-down variant of the company's Android software that powers the majority of the world's smartphones.

It might be the leader in a minuscule market. Research firm Canalys estimated that only 720,000 Android Wear watches sold in 2014.

Samsung is the estimated No. 2 player behind Apple, as it sells watches running on Android Wear as well as its own homegrown software, called Tizen. It released smartwatches even before Motorola, but its early efforts were dinged for being too clunky.

Aesthetics may not be enough for Motorola. It lacks the size of Apple or Samsung, which could bundle their smartwatches with their hit smartphones. While Motorola's Moto X smartphone has won critical praise, it isn't as widely known as the other two major franchises.

"Motorola did really well to be the first reasonably watchlike Android Wear device, but it's got to come up with more if it wants to compete against LG and Samsung, especially when it doesn't have the same scale in the smartphone business to drive bundling of devices," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Customization is key

When you factor in the different bands, materials and colors available to the Moto 360, there are about 300 options, according to Wicks.

The biggest change in the design is the addition of "lugs," the little arms that extend from the watch body and latch onto the band.

The original Moto 360 had a band that went into the watch, which meant you could only choose one band. The addition of the lugs allows you to swap out any band -- including bands made by third parties, Wicks said.

Motorola stresses custom options as the key advantage to Moto 360.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition, the devices come in two sizes, like the Apple Watch, with different options for bands, including leather and steel. The Sport version will go after more activity-focused users with its GPS capabilities and waterproof body.

While Wicks touts the customization options from Moto Maker, others are a bit more skeptical.

Android Wear's website already touts customization as a key theme, and the Moto Maker option for smartwatches doesn't stand out as much as it does for smartphones, according to Dawson. That's largely because other watches offer the ability to change watch faces and straps.

Motorola acknowledged that a majority of the sales of Moto 360 watches will likely come from its preset models, but noted the importance of offering the flexibility to consumers.

Access to iPhone

Google did every smartwatch maker a favor earlier this week by releasing an update to Android Wear that would allow it to work with an iPhone. The compatibility is limited -- only Google notifications work, and third-party applications don't run with the device if linked to an iPhone.

But Wicks believes it's a big deal. He said he's had folks tell him that they would buy a Moto 360 if they weren't already iPhone owners. The update changes things for consumers, and ultimately ties back to the point he had been hammering down all morning.

"It gives them a choice," he said.