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Wearable Tech

Google says 'Android Wear is not a hobby'

It's committed to its software for wearables, releasing a long-time-coming update Wednesday. Execs also answer our questions about a Google-branded watch.

Juan Garzón / CNET
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Even if you buy into Tim Cook's pitch that he can't make enough Apple watches to keep up with demand, the tech industry hasn't had much luck popularizing smartwatches.

But Google's not giving up.

After a months-long delay, Google on Wednesday released its first major update to Android Wear, its software for powering wearable devices. New features include better compatibility with iPhones, an improved messaging interface that lets you respond quickly with autocomplete replies, and the ability to make calls directly from the watch, if it has a built-in cellular connection. As part of the launch, Google also worked with Korean consumer electronics maker LG to unveil two new smartwatches, the LG Watch Style and LG Watch Sport.

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Google says it's committed to Android Wear.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's all part of the search engine's effort to turn wearables into big business.

"Android Wear is not a hobby for us," David Singleton, vice president of engineering for the software, said in an interview at one of Google's San Francisco offices. "We're committed to the space."

In Silicon Valley lingo, labeling something a "hobby" means essentially putting it on the backburner. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously called Apple TV a hobby, and the streaming media box languished for years until Apple got more serious about the living room.

So it's no surprise Singleton would answer so adamantly when asked if Android Wear fell into that category.

Tech giants have had a hard time getting people to buy smartwatches. In the third quarter of 2016, the entire smartwatch market fell by more than half: 2.7 million units were shipped that quarter, as opposed to 5.6 million in that same period the year before, according to IDC.

Making things more difficult for Google, the delay of the Android Wear update -- which was initially slated for the fall -- may have hurt the product during the all-important holiday shopping season, said Ramon Llamas, an analyst for IDC who covers the wearables market. "There was an appetite for new tech," he said. "They may have missed a window."

Meanwhile, Cook lauded the sales of Apple Watches during the fourth quarter, boasting on a conference call that it was the product's "best quarter ever." The only problem is no one knows for sure what that means because Apple doesn't break out watch sales, either by revenue or units.

Even so, Apple is at the top when it comes to smartwatches. Through the first three quarters of 2016, Apple's market share was twice as large as Google's. Android Wear owned 17.8 percent of the market, while Apple's Watch OS nabbed 38 percent, IDC said.

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Google partnered with LG to create the Sport watch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While there haven't been any signs that Android Wear is in danger of falling off Google's priority list, it doesn't hurt for executives to reaffirm the commitment. And to finally ship the update.

Around Google, it may be precarious to be a "hobby" these days. In recent months, a number of the company's extracurricular fare, especially really ambitious projects known in Google parlance as moon shots, have been shut down or scaled back. In 2016, Google scrapped Project Ara, an attempt to build modular phones with interchangeable parts that snap on like Legos.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, also scaled back some of its drone operations. Instead of using drones to beam Wi-Fi signals to remote regions, the company's drone ambitions are now focused on delivering things like pizza and groceries.

"It's really important that it's not a hobby [because of] our partners," said Singleton. "It's important they're able to build a business."

That's because Google's usual modus operandi is to handle the software and leave the hardware to partners like LG, Samsung, Huawei and Sony. It's a model the company used to turn Android, its software for smartphones and tablets, into the most dominant mobile operating system on the planet.

But that resistance to putting the company's name on phones changed last October, when the search giant unveiled the Pixel, billed as the first Google-branded phone. Even so, the Taiwanese company HTC built the hardware.

A Pixel Watch? Doubtful

Speaking of the Pixel phone, that product begs the question: Will Google do the same thing with smartwatches? That is, make a Google-branded watch that puts the search giant's hardware design front and center?

Singleton indicated that's not in the plans for now, noting that it's more important to work with partners and make sure consumers have many choices when it comes to different watch styles. "We genuinely can achieve more than either company would be able to achieve on its own by working together," Singleton said.

Still, when asked point blank about a Google-branded watch, he's coy. All he'll say is, "It's really important that we advance the ecosystem."

He does note, though, that there was close collaboration with hardware partners, and that the packaging on LG and other Android Wear watches says "Designed with our friends at Google."

Llamas of IDC thinks it makes sense for Google to partner with other hardware companies -- as well as create its own watch. "To help Android Wear succeed, let's see a good, deep collection of partners, including with Google itself."

CNET's Sean Hollister contributed to this report.

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