The Wear Wolf: Google doesn’t care about Android Wear so why should you?

I’m going to be quite clear that I think Android Wear is dead. It probably died, like a lot of much-loved celebrities, in 2016. And like the death of a person, the death of technology is often met with much the same response – that is, the five stages of grief. Right now, the press and even manufacturers are in the first stage: denial.

Perhaps worst of all is Google which, despite knowing just how few activated Android Wear devices there are in the world, is still pressing ahead with its own Pixel branded smartwatch. But like so much of what Google does it’s hard to tell which part is innovation and which part is a tax write-off.

If you walk down the street and look at what people have on their wrists, you’ll see a mixture of ordinary watches and sometimes you’ll see an Apple Watch. What you won’t see, unless you work with technology journalists, is wrists festooned with Android Wear devices. How many have I seen in the wild? Almost none. I see mums at the school gates with the Apple Watch on, though.

Why is that? I guess some of it is the brand cachet of Apple. What’s more, the Apple Watch looks like something an adult would wear. Some of the Android Wear devices look like something you’re forced to wear in order to qualify for house arrest. There are, of course, nice looking Android Wear devices, but they’re pretty few and far between.

Of course, there are problems when you actually use the product too. You can mess around with it to show the last watch app you used, but at the most basic level, the Apple Watch prioritises the time. Mostly, what Android Wear shows you is a notification that blocks the lower part of the screen and obscures the time. Sometimes an Android Wear device will even crash. I’ve never noticed the Apple Watch crashing; the closest I’ve come to it was when it occasionally got stuck in sat-nav mode because I hadn’t ended the route on my phone.

The Wear Wolf: Google doesn't care about Android Wear so why should you?

Waiting for Google

Even ignoring all these day-to-day problems, it gets worse for Google, because manufacturers seem to have lost interest too. At CES last year New Balance said that it would have a smartwatch ready for 2016. I’m looking at my watch – it’s a proper watch, before you ask – right now, and I can see there isn’t a lot of 2016 left.

Could it be then that, upon more investigation, the hurdles to making a really good Android Wear device are just too high for most companies to consider it worthwhile? Motorola has paused its smartwatch plans, Sony seems to have done the same. Samsung lost interest in Google’s OS ages ago, and is pushing all of its devices with Tizen.

Even more telling, perhaps, is that the long-promised Blocks smartwatch isn’t even using Android Wear either. Instead it’s using the indie option, Cronologics OS, based on full-blown Android. Mind you, Blocks doesn’t look like it’s going to arrive anytime soon either.

And even if it wasn’t the case that Sony, Motorola and LG sort of gave up on smartwatches yonks ago, even Google can’t stick to its release schedule for Android Wear 2.0. This new, updated OS addresses a lot of the issues with an Android Wear smartwatch, including a massive reduction in the need to actually pair it with a phone. The idea being that each watch is much more self-contained and can run via its own Wi-Fi connection. But Google pushed that release from autumn 2016 to “2017”.

Now, it turns out, Google has also now bought the aforementioned Cronologics, which built an alternative to Android Wear used on the crowdfunded CoWatch. The company was founded by – and this is priceless – former Google employees. So Google has bought back its own staff to make its own flagging wearable OS better.

< 10 million in 2.5 years

Google, no doubt, will claim that it remains committed to Android Wear. I’m sure 2.0 will appear at some point, and some shiny Google hardware will show up too. But none of that matters. What matters is the number of units sold. No hardware company will keep the factories running to produce things people aren’t buying. If Google isn’t seeing enough activations of Android Wear then it will do what Google does best – shut the service down.

The numbers so far suggest that Apple has sold about 15 million Watches since April 2015. Unfortunately it’s a bit harder to work out how many Android Wear devices have been sold. One thing that’s not hard, though, is to see how many times the Android Wear app has been installed. Over on Google Play this is still showing as “between 5-10 million”, which means there aren’t more than 10 million Android Wear owners. (Plus a few iPhone users).

Now, Google Play may count a download only when it’s a new user. In theory, this could mean that there are 200m Android Wear devices out there, all owned by the same “less than 10 million people”. That’s only 20 watches each – totally possible. Then again, take a look at the Google Play stats for Android Pay, which has had between 50 and 100 million installs and doesn’t require the watch. The contrast with the Wear app is so stark it’s at risk of getting its head cut off.

Look, I realise that it sounds like I have some sort of bone to pick with Android Wear, or Google. But the truth is, like a parent, I’m not so much angry as I am disappointed. Android Wear was the most exciting tech of a few years ago. The problem was Google did little to move things forward at any real pace. In the meantime Apple has been producing a smartwatch series that, while flawed, is something people actually want to wear.

So, for all my hatred, could I love AW again one day? We’ll see.

Is our cynical contributor right to abandon hope? Or will Android Wear 2.0 save the day? Fight it out in the comments.