It may seem like Android Wear is dead. Google’s smartwatch platform has lost a lot of its supporting partners, been plagued with bugs and update issues, and isn’t nearly as popular as Apple or Samsung’s smartwatches.
Except, Android Wear’s not quite dead. It’s just not alive where you expect it to be: with the Motorolas, Asuses, or LGs of the world. It’s alive in the display cases of department stores in malls across the country, on brands that are more known for fast fashion than gadget expertise.
Despite a slow and bumpy rollout of Android Wear 2.0, Google has a raft of new smartwatches hitting shelves this fall for the holiday gift-giving season. Even though it has lost the support of the electronics companies, Google says it now has more partners making Android Wear watches than ever before. And those partners are producing more Android Wear models than ever before, too.
The brands that are cranking out new Android Wear devices are as far from typical electronics companies as they can get. Fossil and its stable of brands — Michael Kors, Emporio Armani, Misfit, and Diesel — all have new models for this fall; as do Guess, Hugo Boss, Movado, and Tommy Hilfiger. Luxury brands are also getting in the game: you can get an Android Wear watch from Tag Heuer, Montblanc, and even Louis Vuitton now.
The unifying theme for all of these watches, aside from the fact that they all look more like traditional watches than gadgets, is that none of them are designed to appeal to a gadget enthusiast. Some have GPS, others have NFC, while others still have extra hardware features like a rotatable crown or customizable buttons. Few have heart rate monitors or any extensive fitness features beyond basic step tracking. But none of them have all of the above. If you want the ultimate Android Wear watch with all of the features the platform supports, the only option is LG’s big and clunky Watch Sport, released early this year.
Instead, these fashion watches are built to fill out the display cases in Macy’s for the rush of shoppers looking for gifts for the holidays. They come in styles and designs that will be familiar to the average Fossil, Michael Kors, or Movado buyer. Once the holiday season push is over, they will be replaced by something else and the cycle continues anew.
Not only will these Android Wear watches leave gadget nerds disappointed, they won’t scratch the itch for true watch collectors either. (Not that any smartwatch will, really.) With the exception of perhaps Tag Heuer, none of the brands now making Android Wear devices are known for hand-built, mechanical timepieces. Most of these watch brands just use off-the-shelf quartz movements and design their cases around them. For the Android Wear models, they are swapping out the quartz movements for an electronics stack of processor, battery, touchscreen, and wireless radios.
It makes a ton of sense for these companies to make Android Wear models that look and feel like their existing analog designs and sit side-by-side with them in a department store display case. Android Wear gives them an easy way to offer their customers smartwatch options that are familiar, while not cannibalizing the existing watch lineups.
Despite the different appeal of these watches, none of them are bad smartwatches, at least as far as any smartwatch can be considered good. Fossil and its brands’ latest lineup have upgraded displays that are as sharp and vibrant as any watch made by a tech company, and the larger models even come with rotatable crowns to scroll through Android Wear’s interface. The battery life, performance, and basic features of these watches are all comparable to what you could get from LG or Huawei. Nobody expects Louis Vuitton to make a good gadget, but the display on the $2,495 Tambour Horizon is as good or better than any screen I’ve seen on other smartwatches.
At the same time, many of these watches fail to improve the experience beyond what we’ve seen with Android Wear so far. They may be more comfortable to wear — being based on existing watch designs that have been around for years certainly helps here — but charging these watches still relies on a flimsy magnetic connector that’s all too easy to knock off or misplace. You may have spent nearly $3,000 for that Louis Vuitton, but you don’t get a dock or convenient charging stand in that orange box. You also shouldn’t expect more than a day between charges, and none of these watches work any better with an iPhone than any other Android Wear watch.
What you do get are custom watchfaces specific to each brand. The Michael Kors Sofie and Grayson have watchfaces that mimic Kors’ analog watches and can automatically switch colors or designs based on time of day. Tag Heuer’s second-generation Connected watch comes with faces that mimic the chronograph designs the brand is famous for. And Movado’s new $595 Connected watch has the classic Museum face that makes it instantly recognizable as a Movado. Louis Vuitton even provides a way to see your flight itinerary in some of its watchfaces, because its brand is closely associated with traveling the world (in first class, of course).
When I asked David Singleton, the head of Android Wear at Google, why the company hasn’t yet produced a flagship Wear device under the Pixel brand, he simply said that Google “doesn’t see a need for a halo product to establish the category.” The partners that Google has are doing the work of putting watches out there, and they are growing their lines and sales, so Google doesn’t feel the need to step in.
But if there’s one thing about fashion that’s different from tech, it’s that fashion trends are fickle, and while these brands are embracing Android Wear right now, it’s not guaranteed that they will forever, or even next season. The technology brands that Google partnered with back at the original launch of Android Wear have either switched platforms, slimmed down their wearable efforts, or stopped making smartwatches entirely. The same could very well happen with the fashion brands that have now picked up the mantle. Most of these brands do little to explain what Android Wear is, or why their customer would want it instead of a traditional watch.
For now, though, if you’re shopping for a new smartwatch running Android Wear, the best place to look might be your local mall.