Android Wear could make or break the smartwatch

Google is about to determine the future of smartwatches. When it announced Android Wear -- its new platform for wearable technology (watches in particular) -- I was in London for an industry trade show, along with a number of wearables manufacturers. I'm not sure the timing was deliberate, but there's no doubt the mood in the room changed once the news broke. If you're in the business of smartwatches (or wearables in general), with products already in development, and one of the biggest names in technology enters the fray, you're going to face some big decisions. Get on board with the new platform, or go it alone? Given Google's success in the smartphone world, Android Wear could make or break smartwatches.

The problem

Right now, the smartwatch corner of the technology "garden" is wild and unkempt. A tangle of different form factors, software platforms, feature sets and compatibility issues. Some solve single problems; others want to do it all. The current smartwatch market is a mess. The problem seems to be finding a problem to solve. Phone notifications are usually the starting point, but more specific tasks (often fitness related) are also candidates for upgrading an otherwise regular watch to a "smart" one.

The fact is most smartwatches are flawed. If it's not poor battery life, or limited phone compatibility, or poor app support, or niche functionality, it's cumbersome design, a high price tag or limited geek appeal. There are big names involved, too. But that doesn't seem to help. Samsung released four Gear watches in the last eight months, and even with the company's considerable marketing clout and brand recognition, it'd be hard-pressed to call any of them a hit with the public.

One watch has, perhaps, caught people's attention more than most: Pebble. It famously obliterated its Kickstarter goal, and has enjoyed media accolades ever since. But even the mighty Pebble is a rarity to spot out in the wild (beyond certain tech hubs at least). Ask most pedestrians to name a smartwatch brand, and they'll be more likely to reach for Casio than Samsung, Sony, LG, Motorola, etc.

Why is this? Partly because choosing a smartwatch today is like choosing a smartphone circa 2006 -- multiple platforms, designs and features that make each one feel like an island. One from which there is no escape should you not like the weather, or the lack of food. The analogy is true even down to the bespoke chargers that phones once required. Hunting out that specific Motorola/Nokia/whatever charger was a problem we all thought we'd left behind, surely? But here it is again in wrist-worn form.

Wear's the solution?

The smartphone problem was solved with software. Phone makers (mostly) stopped backing their own horses, and settled on a common solution (Android, Windows, iOS, etc.). This allowed hardware makers to concentrate on gear, and gave users some sort of stability in their experience (without diminishing choice altogether). This is the first task Android Wear has to achieve if smartwatches are to progress. The second is that slightly thornier one of problem solving. With phones killing off the need for a watch at all, if we're to keep glancing at our wrist, it'd better be for a good reason. Most of what we know about Android Wear's functionality right now is shown off in the video below and looks like a mixture of Google Now and Siri. Of course, we're going to reserve judgment until we've seen it for ourselves.

In the next 24 hours, via Google's I/O event, we're going to learn a lot more about Android Wear, and what it can actually do. Beyond the notification and Google Now-like functionality, there are hints at it hooking into other ecosystems. In the advert above, it ends on what can only be a massive tease about an Android@Home revival (or refresh), surely? It's big, mass-appeal functionality like this that could really push smartwatches out of the darker corners of the tech-club and into the warm light of Main Street.

The technical aspects of Android Wear might not be the most important factor though. With Wear, we see Google's first official dalliance in the watch space. Possibly only Apple's entrance to the market is more anticipated. In a sense, Wear gives Google's blessing to smartwatches, which in turn adds legitimacy. Not to mention, with Motorola and LG (and, probably, Samsung) having hardware more or less ready to go, there's already solid manufacturer support. This is the biggest reset of the smartwatch market so far. If Android Wear can't gain traction with the buying public now, no number of iWatches is going to help.