March has been a particularly fecund time for new Android Wear watch announcements, though unlike previous years, the brands behind these devices are almost all from the fashion and luxury spheres of business. Tag Heuer, Montblanc, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, Emporio Armani, Michael Kors, and Movado are just some of the well known names announcing Wear 2.0 smartwatches. This wave of new products is symptomatic of a broader trend in the tech industry: one where a high degree of component and software integration has made it almost trivial to launch a new tech product, whether or not you’re actually a tech company.
Though a number of the newly unveiled watches haven’t been fully detailed and specced out yet, we already know the commonalities between them. They run the same Android Wear 2.0, embellished with a custom watchface or two. Inside, most are relying on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip — excepting Tag Heuer’s partnership with Intel on the Connected Modular 45 — which integrates all the necessary wireless radios for a smartwatch. And they all have roughly the same battery size and physical dimensions.
I like to imagine there’s a debonair Google operative out there, visiting all the fashion brands and giving them the exact same pitch: take our software, nothing for you to do, take Qualcomm’s chip, no extra labor required, and use these reliable suppliers of memory chips and batteries. All you have to do is put a strap on it and it’s a smartwatch!
This standardization of software and hardware parts has made it possible for companies unfamiliar with the complexities of producing an integrated smart device to launch one anyway. It’s the smartwatch equivalent of a company like Adidas taking a standard quartz movement and building a three-striped watch around it. On the one hand, it feeds a consumer desire to have favorite brands covering everything we own, but on the other, it doesn’t really lead to any better watches or technology.
The crux of the problem with these internally identical Android Wear watches is that tech consumers demand substantive differences between cheap and expensive gadgets. How does Montblanc justify charging three times as much as LG for a watch that is functionally the same as LG’s? When Tag Heuer or any other famed watchmaker puts four-figure prices on its mechanical watches, there’s an implied promise that they’ll have an unmatched quality of workmanship and precision. But when those same companies outsource the brains to Google and the brawn to Qualcomm, what’s left for them to differentiate themselves with?
In fashion, the price premiums are usually justified by higher quality materials, sharper looks, and brand cachet. So there’s still a chance that watches like the Movado Connect (above) will attract people more concerned with aesthetics than functionality — provided this shift toward fashion sensibilities is real and not just wishful thinking. And yet, isn’t the whole point of smartwatches the fact that they’re more functional?
Android Wear requires a sacrifice of some convenience — primarily to do with the added bulk and weight of the watch — for the benefit of smart functions like notifications, contactless payments, and music controls. Even with the supposed next-gen power efficiency of Qualcomm’s new chip, an Android Wear watch will require regular, probably daily, recharging, whereas automatic timepieces can just tick along happily so long as they’re regularly used.
The promise from brands like Movado and Montblanc is that you can have the smartwatch functions with an extra layer of exquisite design and exclusive materials. But will that really be enough? Can an Android Wear watch justify a luxury price when the most unique thing about it is its wrist strap?