Why Android Wear faces a tougher fight than you think

Tech companies have been trying to make smartwatches happen for decades. Luke Westaway argues that Google has a mountain to climb to make Android Wear the Next Big Thing.

Luke Westaway Senior editor
Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.
Luke Westaway
5 min read

Jason Cipriani/CNET

You don't need me to tell you that the smartwatch is a sci-fi dream. From "The Jetsons" to "Knight Rider" to "Power Rangers", barking orders at a wrist-worn communicator has long been held up as a paragon of the high-tech future we must surely be drifting towards -- as inevitable as augmented-reality retina implants, hoverboards or a violent robot uprising.

Watch this: Android Wear's amazing smartwatch ancestors

Today, with Samsung, LG and Google unleashing a wave of glossy, futuristic smartwatches, it's tempting to think that we're on the cusp of the next technological revolution. But while researching a recent episode of Adventures in Tech -- the show I write and present for CNET -- I was made painfully aware that while the smartwatch is enjoying a new surge in media attention, the concept of a wrist-borne computer has been forced upon us time and time again, without even a hint of success.

Sony, Seiko, LG and Fossil have all shown off smartwatches over the last few decades, each attempt sinking sadly into obscurity. In the mid-90s Microsoft partnered with Timex to build the Data Link, a gloriously retro timepiece that absorbed data from a computer wirelessly, via code flashed as a series of white lines on a CRT monitor.

Unboxing Microsoft's retro smartwatches, the Data Link and SPOT Watch (pictures)

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To make that episode of Adventures in Tech I tracked down an original Data Link, still in its box. The packaging is littered with plaudits from the likes of Popular Mechanics, Byte Magazine and Popular Science -- which awarded the Data Link its "Best of What's New" award. Gazing at the row of tiny trophies, I couldn't help but think the praise heaped upon this retro relic could be an echo of the column inches currently devoted to Google's Android Wear.

In 20 years' time, how will Android Wear be remembered? Luke Westaway/CNET

Believe it or not, Microsoft built a slightly more contemporary rival for Google's new platform. In the early 2000s the software giant embarked on perhaps the most ambitious smartwatch campaign in history with its SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) platform. SPOT technology would, Bill Gates enthused in 2003, find its way into a broad range of household objects, beginning with smartwatches.

Bill Gates promotes the SPOT Watch in 2004. Microsoft

A number of partners like Fossil and Suunto teamed up with Microsoft to build SPOT watches, which -- believe it or not -- received data via FM radio broadcast, using a subscription-based service called MSN Direct. Needless to say, as mobile phones became increasingly Internet-capable there soon wasn't much need to have news headlines, horoscopes and messages sent to your watch over radio waves.

Nevertheless, the SPOT watch, like the smartwatches before it, was out there if you wanted to buy it. And ultimately, hardly anyone did.

Indeed, as far back as the mid-80s there was wearable tech on sale that was compatible with computers such as the Apple II, and yet in 2014 the overwhelming majority of watch-wearers still stick to low-tech, time-telling devices. Why?

The smartwatch: We've been here before. Seiko

As far as I can see, there are two possible reasons for the smartwatch's repeated failure to launch. First, it could be that the technological advances required to make smartwatches genuinely appealing haven't been present thus far. The second reason is a less hopeful one: maybe people just don't like smartwatches.

Google, take note

It's not clear which of these two reasons is the right one to explain our repeated rejection of the smartwatch. Certainly Android Wear comes at a time when mobile gadgetry is positively alive with potential -- we have Bluetooth for fast wireless communication with our always-connected smartphone, and stunning curved displays that can render pertinent information and notifications with more beauty than ever before.

Google however would be wise to take note of the failed smartwatches of yesteryear, because even if they were never up to the task technologically speaking, they do prove one thing -- that persuading the general public to buy, wear and use a high-tech timepiece is no picnic. It's not enough that the smartwatch looks and feels futuristic -- they've done that for decades. What we need is for these minuscule marvels to be better than a Rolex, better than a bog-standard Casio digital watch, better than wearing nothing on your wrist at all.

The spectre of Apple

Notifications are Android Wear's bread and butter. Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

The current crop of smartwatches serve two main purposes -- keeping track of your activity (to inform health-tracking apps and the like), and showing you notifications from your smartphone, such as missed calls, weather updates or texts.

These might be useful things to have, but I'm sure there are plenty of you out there who'd agree those aren't especially fun or exciting features. More to the point, smartwatches as they stand don't do much that a smartphone can't do. What the smartwatch industry needs is a company that can either a) think of something new and interesting for high-tech watches to do, or b) persuade us that receiving texts on our wrists is actually a fun, sexy, fashionable way to spend our time -- and money.

An iWatch with the look of a fitness band (pictures)

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Apple's long-rumoured iWatch could provide the marketing push to force smartwatches into the public consciousness. After all, simply think back to 2010 and the scepticism surrounding the iPad, which at first appeared an almost laughably peculiar device -- "It's just a giant iPhone," many chortled. It's since proved to be a hugely popular and important piece of tech. Then again, the smartwatch may prove to be an idea that not even Apple can sell.

A new 3D?

The smartwatch and wearable tech phenomenon is fascinating, because in terms of success, it really could go either way. Google and Apple may ride the next wave of consumer technology all the way to the bank, but it's also possible that the smartwatch revolution is one part potential and nine parts wishful thinking.

Well, it's still wearable tech. Sarah Tew/CNET

New smartphones and tablets have, over the last few years, become more iterative and steadily less exotic -- something UK analyst Ernest Doku referred to as "handset fatigue" when we spoke to him about iOS 8. As smartphones cease to be the hottest new thing, tech manufacturers understandably start looking for something new to sell us. And they appear to have settled on hyper-advanced wristwear.

In this respect, smartwatches remind me a little of 3D, the technology foisted upon the public in a bid to keep cinemas full, and TV sales healthy, but that is frequently bemoaned by actual movie-goers. The sheer force of will from an entire industry will push smartwatches into our lives, but it's another matter altogether whether or not the public will really embrace them.

It's not impossible by any means, and I'd love to see one manufacturer or one app developer make it, in one elegant swoop, abundantly clear why the smartwatch is the new must-have gadget. But if you think back to Microsoft's poor old SPOT watch, it's clear that without this lightning bolt of brilliance, the battle to make the smartwatch popular may be a tougher fight than Google -- or anyone -- had anticipated.