Samsung needs to open its Gear smartwatches to other phones
Just under one month ago, Google turned the smartwatch and wearables industry on its head.
As I was writing an editorial about the then-rumored Google smartwatch, Google pulled a fast one on us and announced something much more than just one smartwatch; it announced an entire, dedicated platform for smartwatches: Android Wear.
I immediately changed the tone of my editorial and wrote what was on my mind that very moment. I regretted ordering Pebble Steel just one week before.
To this day, though the Pebble Steel shipped and arrived before I definitively decided to cancel the order, I regret the purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the Pebble Steel and support Pebble as a company. But I’m a huge proponent and daily user of Google Now, and having those capabilities – calendar updates, nearby events, stocks, and all the information I want and need automatically crafted to my interests – straight on my wrist offers much more to me, as an end user.
Pebble, as expected, welcomes the challenge Android Wear and its partner manufacturers pose, and I look forward to seeing where the startup can take its next-generation of products. But Android Wear is certainly a setback for the company. It broadsided Pebble and will ultimately force the startup to rethink its product, its overall stance on the smartwatch, and the effectiveness of Pebble in comparison to other products.
That said, there are a few reasons Pebble still has a fighting chance – namely, cross-platform compatibility and service agnosticism. Pebble works on Android and iOS. As far as we know, Android Wear will be limited to Android. There’s a chance it will also support iOS – Google Now is available on both platforms and Google Glass works with iOS. But Android Wear will still require users to use and become invested in Google’s services. And the Google Now experience, at least through a peripheral, on iOS could easily become a watered-down version.
Pebble, on the other hand, works perfectly fine whether you’re invested in Apple’s or Google’s ecosystems (or neither).
However, Pebble wasn’t the only company that Google upended.
Samsung is also heavily invested in the wearables market. Its Galaxy Gear and more recent Tizen-powered Gear watches may offer extended functionality over Pebble smartwatches and look fantastic, but they come with one fatal flaw: they’re locked to Android-powered Samsung smartphones and tablets.
From the very beginning, we’ve asked why that is.
The easy answer Samsung gravitates towards says the decision to lock its Gear watches to only Samsung devices is in favor of the best possible user experience. The more likely reason is because it keeps its users invested specifically in Samsung, not just Android as a whole.
Samsung wants users to buy into its products and its services, to corner users into this tight-knit, limited ecosystem-within-an-ecosystem, which many speculate is a precautionary move in the event Samsung ever needs to break away from Android and stand on its own with Tizen OS. And even that theory seems less and less likely as the Tizen story unfolds and Samsung succumbs to Google’s wishes to stop detracting so heavily from the core Android experience.
I digress. Price aside, the Gear Fit, Gear 2, and Gear 2 Neo now seem like the least logical smartwatches to buy, that is, unless you’re dedicated to the Samsung brand and all things Samsung, all the time.
For starters, the whole Gear ecosystem is hinging on the hopes that developers will take to Tizen OS. But pair the fact that the end user must be using a Samsung-powered smartphone, and you’ve already cut out a fairly significant chunk of potential buyers.
Samsung still manages to sell nearly one in every three smartphones, globally. But it’s cutting out over 53 percent of its potential customers by limiting Gear watches to only be paired with Samsung devices. Throw in the Android Wear factor, the cross-platform support by Pebble, and small percentage of smartphone or tablet owners who are actually interested in a smartwatch, and the viability of Gear watches becomes more and more slim. The spectrum narrows to a sliver, and Gear quickly becomes an incredibly niche product that few will ever want.
Truth be told, I’d be interested in at least trying out one of the new Gear watches if I could pair it with a One M8, Moto X, or a Nexus 5. But I, personally, haven’t cared for Samsung’s last three generations of the Galaxy S brand. The Galaxy Note series has appealed to me at times, but I’ve always fallen out of love with them rather quickly, mostly due to TouchWiz and its overbearing, cluttered, inconsistent ways.
The interesting bit here is that Samsung was listed as a partner manufacturer in the original announcement of Android Wear, and it makes you wonder what exactly will happen to Gear come the time for Samsung to release its Android Wear-powered smartwatch. Will Samsung keep Gear alive? Will its Android Wear and Gear watches overlap or offer similar functionality?
Chances are, they’ll be completely different products, since Android Wear is specifically a vehicle for notifications and the Google Now service, whereas the Gear watches are fitness trackers and far closer to standalone devices than Android Wear watches will initially be.
Clearly Samsung is dedicated to the wearables market; it has made four smartwatches in the last six months; yet it continues to cut out over half of its potential customer base. It’s just one of the many mounding reasons not to buy a Gear, which is unfortunate. They’re actually pretty compelling, beautiful watches, capable of a lot things.
Still, when it boils down to it, support is everything. And for now, the Gear watches are the most locked-down, unsupported smartwatches available. And to a lot of people, will gravitate towards watches with support for a broader selection of devices. I know I certainly will. What say you?