With its Pixel Watch set to debut Thursday, Google has a chance to make up for lost time by giving Android smartphone owners a worthy smartwatch — and giving them a better reason not to switch to Apple products.
On Thursday, Pixel phones and watches will share the spotlight with smart home devices and other hardware at the Made By Google fall product launch event in Brooklyn, New York. If the Google device division succeeds, its smartwatch could encourage customers to stay in the Android fold the way Apple Watches make it hard for people to dump their iPhones.
See also: Here's where you'll find our live blog for the Google Pixel event.
The Pixel Watch could be the missing ingredient in Google's lineup of devices that can help lock you into its world of products and services. Google has plenty of other products like thermostats, Wi-Fi routers, smart speakers and networked doorbells that it can bring to this broad ecosystem competition. Expect to see a bunch of them at the Brooklyn event. But those don't keep Android users from defecting to iPhones since the Google Home app that manages them runs fine on Apple products, too.
A watch, on the other hand, is a more personal device.
"One of the things that is keeping people locked into Apple's ecosystem is once you buy an Apple Watch, it's really hard to leave," said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart, noting the Pixel Watch will play a critical role in the Made by Google event.
This year, the iPhone surpassed devices running Android, Google's mobile software, for the first time since 2010 as the smartphone of choice in the US. Apple's phone dominance comes from advantages like strong product design, loyal customers, a wealth of apps and effective marketing. Apple CEO Tim Cook has also crowed about the rate of people who have dropped Android to make the jump to iOS.
While the big tech companies like Google and Amazon have created families of interconnected devices, no one does it better than Apple. Accessories like the Apple Watch and AirPods work harmoniously together, reinforcing each others' strengths and discouraging people from dumping one product or another. The Apple Watch only works with iPhones, making it hard for users who spent $399 on an Apple Watch Series 8 to switch to Android.
Conversely, Google's Wear OS software hasn't caught on widely. Apple's Watch OS-powered Apple Watches locked in 29% of global smartwatch shipments in the second quarter of 2022, making Apple the single biggest company by far, according to Counterpoint Research. While Android makers create cutting-edge phones, not having strong smartwatch software made it hard to compete against Apple, and Google itself had no smartwatch product at all.
The first Apple Watch arrived in 2015, the year after Google announced its Wear OS software effort. Apple's initial sales pitch was somewhat muddled — was the Apple Watch a useful digital timepiece or an expensive fashion accessory? But the company hit its stride with steady annual improvements that cemented its smartwatch as a tool for communication, health and fitness.
Google struggled to achieve Wear OS success despite support from fashion brands such as Fossil and Michael Kors. Top Android phone maker partner Samsung abandoned Wear OS for its own Tizen OS instead. That rift only began to heal when Samsung came back to the Google fold with the Galaxy Watch 4 in 2021.
For the Pixel Watch to succeed, Google will need to give us a good reason to buy it, like superior AI features and integration with Android phones and Google services. That would help not just Google's hardware division profits, but the whole Android world.
A good watch now can be as important as a good phone for customer loyalty. "I actually would argue that quite a few customers stayed with Apple because of Apple Watch, and not necessarily because of the iPhone," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
Milanesi suspects Google's hardware division, Made by Google, simply hasn't had the funding and staff to compete effectively against the Apple Watch.
"We always need to think about Google versus Made by Google," she said. "I think that Made by Google still has limited resources."