Earlier this month, I was sitting in a conventional conference room in Google’s New York office, complete with the standard movable whiteboard, an oblong gray table, a conference phone and an intercom system.
This, however, was not the standard product briefing.
Roughly two-dozen smartwatches sat on the table, bearing the names of trendy brands such as Tag Heuer and Movado. Yes, Google’s head of Android Wear was in the room, but so were six sharply dressed representatives from the fashion world. The watches came in different materials, bands and, most importantly, sizes.
The message was clear: Android Wear isn’t just about geek, its new focus is on chic.
Consider this a second act for Android Wear, which has struggled since it came out of the gate three years ago at the Google I/O developer conference. Though people are starting to warm up to smartwatches, the ones they’re buying are the Apple Watch or Samsung’s Tizen-powered Gear S watches. Android Wear is missing out. Its most successful partner, Motorola, stopped making watches.
As result, the usual Android partners like Samsung and LG were nowhere to be found at the briefing. In their place were brands you’re likely to see at a Macy’s, from Emporio Armani to Michael Kors.
For David Singleton, who leads the Android Wear team for Google, the plethora of watches on the table were part of Android’s philosophy to create different products that fit your unique tastes.
“It’s really cool to be sitting here … and really see that diversity we were aiming for really come to life,” he said in an interview.
It’s no coincidence Google is opting for a more couture makeover. Its partnership with the Fossil Group, which makes watches for Michael Kors, Emporio Armani and Diesel, is one of its rare bright spots.
Fossil was the largest seller of Android Wear watches in the first quarter, according to IDC. Still, it made up only 5.7 percent of the global market, with Garmin and Samsung, which both use their own operating systems, ahead of it. Leading the pack was Apple, which makes up more than half the sale of smartwatches.
Still, Hannah Liu, director of wearables at Fossil, said she was seeing “hockey stick” level growth in smartwatches (which is admittedly easy when you’re starting from zero).
And boy, are its customers obsessed with their watch faces. Liu said that over a 30-day period, Michael Kors smartwatch owners changed the face more than a million times.
That’s why the array of watches on the table not only had a wide variety of different looks, they all had some custom aspect to the watch face as well. One Michael Kors watch had a unique face that pulled up photos from your Facebook or Instagram feed. A Fossil watch let you tweak the colors and look of the face, and share it with friends through a special code so other Fossil wearers could share in the look.
“If you’ve ever been in a ‘bride tribe,’ you know that would be useful,” Liu said.
Addressing an early issue with bulky smartwatches, Liu added that the new collection includes smaller sizes to better accommodate female shoppers and consumers in the Asia-Pacific region.
The fashion brands may be eager to get into the game because Apple Watch is starting to eat their lunch, according to Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data. The Apple Watch is priced between $270 and $1,300, and many of these brands sit smack in the middle of that range.
“This is a conscious decision by the fashion brands,” said Greengart.
The hope for these companies is that they can offer a digital version of analog designs that have proved successful.
“We were aiming for a look that you’re wearing a real watch,” said Heather Cohen-Sugarman, a spokeswoman for Movado Group. “We wanted people to tell you were wearing the iconic museum dial from miles and miles away.”
The priority given to aesthetics means most of of the watches on the table don’t have their own LTE radio. Watches with their own radios, like theor the , can work independently from the phone. Singleton said the inclusion of a radio would’ve meant sacrifices, like dropping swappable bands, that many of the companies weren’t ready to make.
Liu said the high interest level has convinced Fossil to set up a design lab to test different ideas, like rotating bezels or different plating materials. But the fashion houses are more cautious when it comes to technology.
“When we’re trying to converge the two together, we want to be really sensible about what we put out there and whether it’s something the consumer would go for,” she said.
Google will rely on companies like LG or Huawei to push the envelope on Android Wear, Singleton said.
Some are worried the slow adoption of some smartwatch features will lead to customer confusion.
“That may be good for fashion companies who may want to push their own agendas and features, but it also leaves behind an incomplete Android Wear experience,” said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas.
Given its struggles so far, maybe Google’s just hoping people try out any version of the Android Wear experience.
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