Google smartwatch: Will it be an 'iPhone moment' for wearables?

By tying its prospective smartwatch to its Now virtual assistant, Google may give its wearable a reason to exist, and by extension, give the public a reason to rally behind a still unproven device.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
6 min read
Google is set to join Fitbit, Pebble, and Samsung in trying to earn a spot on your wrist. Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite all the promises, smartwatches remain an acquired taste. Yes, there's a market but one that largely caters to the likes of health junkies and early adopters.

Fitness bands are cheap and light but too minimalist. Samsung's Galaxy Gear is all brawn but lacks device compatibility and email support. And the Pebble, one of the first true-blue smartwatches, is still trying to build an app ecosystem the way that Google and Apple did for their smartphones. It's an uphill battle for Pebble, the smartwatch darling, and it won't get any easier when those tech titans join the fray.

There's wide agreement that the smartwatch market one day will undergo its magic moment where the debut of a device hits the right spot between form, function, and price point and electrifies a somnolent market. But, while the drumbeat of product rumors is getting louder all the time, it's still unclear which company will invent a smartwatch that has the sort of transformational impact that the iPhone had on the mobile phone business.

The latest report, however, indicates that Google may soon get a chance to try.

Google Now: A smartwatch's killer feature?
Google's upcoming product is said to be just months away from mass production and the company is placing its bets on its Google Now virtual assistant, a wholly different strategy than other smartwatch makers. By focusing on functionality and a pre-existing platform -- not exclusively design -- Google reportedly is banking on its ability to make a watch that is less an expensive accessory to a smartphone and more a device with a unique utility in its own right. The thinking would be that Google Now, with its ability to improve its accuracy and deliver information it thinks we want to see, could be the smartwatch selling point we've been waiting for.

"If you can put useful information and tailor the service so it's producing info that people want to access on their wrists, then you may have a breakout product," said Steve Blum, president of telecommunications and digital media consultancy firm Tellus Ventures Associates. "That to me is pretty interesting. The iPhone wouldn't have been the iPhone without the apps and the data connectivity and all the things you can now all of sudden do with it."

CNET contacted Google for comment and will update this post when there is more information.

Designing around an information delivery system is a strategy that Google has used to its advantage elsewhere with the company creating products, such as Android phones and notebooks, that contribute to the growth in the number of people using its services -- especially search.

"Paying several hundred dollars for something with novelty value at this stage isn't in the cards for most folks," Blum said. "But linking it to a data service, Google is creating that need."

If Google throws its weight behind its virtual assistant software and tries to ditch the accessory moniker, Google has the opportunity to tackle a key pricing issue that plagues wrist-worn wearables: many people don't wear watches anymore or only wear inexpensive disposables.

"My opinion personally is that I believe Google Now is fantastic," said Myriam Joire, Pebble's recently-hired product evangelist and a former Engadget editor. "I think it's amazing and I think it's going to be a competitive advantage," she added, noting that smartwatch makers need to be invested in their ecosystem.

"With Pebble, the cross-platform aspect is really important," she said. "We have strengths nobody else has been able to breach," adding that cross-platform functionality is coupled the Pebble's battery life and water-proof body to make for the most consumer-friendly smartwatch on the market, but still one that functions "as an accessory, companion experience."

Samsung's Galaxy Gear -- on top of the limited number of devices it pairs with -- is too expensive and not quite smart enough to be the smartwatch trailblazer Google may be poised to become. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

We're at a point where Google could forgo extraneous and costly design elements -- the Gear's large screen or the Pebble's multi-colored options -- if it manages to market the watch as something people will find uniquely useful. In other words, if its cheap and powerful and looks even halfway decent, Google's smartwatch could render the alternatives undesirable. The Gear, for instance, is at the moment nothing more than a decently designed but currently app-less $300 piece of tech jewelry, so the battle wouldn't be hard-fought.

Still, aesthetics are important -- if not potentially paramount -- with wearables. The Galaxy Note 3 may be larger than your face, but if you love a big screen to watch video and play games, it's size is not a problem because it sits in your purse or slides into a back pocket. A watch, on the other hand, can't be too heavy or clunky, nor can it involve any substantial trade-offs if it's to be physically attached to us at all hours of the day. That's another reason why many wearable watchers like Blum believe that the market for geek fashion statements is limited -- barring something "wow."

Sarah Rottman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, thinks design is perhaps the biggest hurdle because of its intrinsic relationship with the battery life of small devices.

"Smartwatches are big, honking ugly devices, and I have yet to see one that a woman would ever wear," she said definitively. "For Google's watch to succeed, it needs to not only show it's a software company, but that it's a first class hardware company."

For Rottman Epps, that means factoring in fashion without sacrificing battery life, a combination she thinks could still be years away. "Consumers want it all," she said. "They want great battery life, they want fashion, they want great software and they want it for a really good price. We haven't seen a smart watch yet that hits on those."

She noted that software and connectivity are getting better, "but if you're putting a LCD screen on your wrist, it eats battery life and it also makes the design really clunky. No one has a golden solution for battery life."

Google's reportedly working to make a device which requires fewer battery charges, though it's too soon to make any guess as to what it thinks of as an acceptable level of battery life for a screen-equipped smartwatch.

A Google Glass approach is still a win for Android
There's also the slight possibility that Google's smartwatch is not meant to compete with the Galaxy Gear, the Pebble, or any fitness offering.

Google has demonstrated in the past that it doesn't care whether it makes a product that will sell if it's merely interested in the idea itself. If it wants more people on the Web using Google products, it will go out and offer affordable fiber-optic Internet or air balloon Wi-Fi.

Or if Google sees an opportunity for hyper-specific technology to trickle down into the mainstream -- Google Glass being the most famous example -- it will kickoff an entire movement just to see what things like augmented reality and head-mounted displays can conceivably do for consumer technology at large. If that were the case, Google could be making something radically functional, but not meant for the everyday consumer.

"I wonder how interested Google is in actually making the product instead of just stirring up the market and demonstrating what it can do," posited Blum.

Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch looks good, but doesn't do enough (pictures)

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Google Glass's Explorer edition is barely usable throughout an entire day because of battery life issues, and has yet to provide unique utility beyond an exuberant tech status symbol. But it was proof that optic-based wearable technology wasn't restricted to science fiction any longer. Google's watch could be the most accurate and smartest voice assistant on the planet, but everything else about it -- from its design to its price -- could very well make for the opposite of the "iPhone for smartwatches" the mass market is hungering after.

Still, the watch is undoubtedly Android-driven and so whatever form it takes will prove to be a boon to the open-source ecosystem that Google wants to promote. That's a strategy Google's increasingly more comfortable with.

"They'll build the stuff," Blum noted. "But they'd really prefer that others did it for them." This time, it seems, Google may not be willing to let Apple be the first to earn credit for doing it right.