Why Google Should Unveil Android Wear for iOS at Google I/O 2015

by: | May 26, 2015

No matter what is revealed Thursday, Google will make headlines. The Google I/O developer conference keynote, like Apple’s WWDC opening extravaganza, has become annual must-see live theatre. There will be thousands of tweets, dozens of live blogs and hundreds of media roundups after the keynote — analyzing every Google presenter’s demo, slide, spoken word, and gesture.

I’m looking forward to learning Google’s planned next steps for home automation, its answer to ResearchKit, and about the release of the next Android operating system (a.k.a. “Android M”), among all the potential news.

Android Wear for iOS could be the slap on the wrist that the sluggish wearables category needs.

But there’s one thing above all else I think Google can and should do: Introduce Android Wear for iOS. It would make waves because of the obvious shock value (even though it’s been rumored in the press) of playing in Apple’s somewhat closed ecosystem. More importantly, it could be the slap on the wrist that the sluggish wearables category needs.

How Android Wear for iOS Could Work

Android Wear for iOS would allow non-Apple wearables to work with iPhone and offer deeper integration than current wearables — including Pebble, Martian Notifier, and Fitbit — have today. Instead of simple one-way notifications, third-party watches and wearables would allow people to fully interact with notifications and apps that live on the iPhone. For example, instead of simply seeing that a friend sent you an SMS on your notification-savvy Bluetooth-enabled non-Apple watch, with an Android Wear watch and third-party apps you can actually take action on the SMS — read it, dismiss it, and even respond to it — without pulling the iPhone out of your pocket. In other words, you can get all of the interactive functionality that is the cornerstone of the Apple Watch, but on your Android Wear watch instead.

A Google solution would likely include these two pieces:

  • An Android Wear app for iOS that would sit on the phone and enable this deep communication between the iPhone and any Android Wear device. (Note: It would probably need to be named something without referencing Android, per Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines item 3.1)
  • An SDK for app developers to embed in their apps, with everything they’d need to include support of Android Wear devices from their iOS applications. This would essentially be the equivalent of WatchKit.

What Android Wear for iOS Would Mean for Consumers

Last summer, before the Apple Watch was announced, I wrote a blog post about what it would take to make an Android Wear watch work with the iPhone. At the time, I thought it was mostly a temporary market opportunity — that in the short term, there were probably a lot of iPhone users on the fence about buying a smart watch. But I thought eventually Apple would enter the category — which they did — and fill that gap. Turns out, that blog post is the most read of any post on our site. And it’s still our No. 1 post in calendar year 2015 — long after the Apple Watch was announced.

Most of the visits to that post are coming through search. You can bet Google is well aware of this: Thousands of people are still searching online for a way to make Android Wear work with iPhone. The motivation is pretty clear: The rectangular design of Apple Watch isn’t for everyone. Many think other smart watch designs are better — like the popular Moto 360 from Motorola, or the recently released LG Watch Urbane (I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Huawei Watch). They’re all much less expensive than Apple’s as well, with some coming in under $150.

If Google was to introduce Android Wear for iOS, it would instantly mean more choices for consumers who are committed to the iPhone platform. And competition is almost always a good thing for consumers.

What Android Wear for iOS Would Mean for Smart Watch Makers

Any product marketing or product development exec will tell you the first thing you need to look at when defining a new product or service is the addressable market size. If you are Samsung or Motorola or any startup in the wearables space — and you’re trying to justify the development cost on a new smart watch model — the market size is limited right now to Android phone users. If Google introduces Android Wear for iOS, it would effectively double the market opportunity.

It might also lure companies like Pebble and FitBit to go all-in on Android Wear, since they would be able to develop once and get access to the attractive market of iPhone users, along with the Android market. Instead of fighting an uphill battle to get app developers to embed the Pebble SDK and write Pebble apps, Pebble would benefit from apps that have embedded the Android Wear SDK. And, fitness trackers and notification-enabled watches that don’t even have SDKs would instantly gain advanced smart watch functionality.

Suddenly, it’s a lot easier for all hardware companies — along with startups and their investors — to bet big on a much larger and more open wearables market.

What Android Wear for iOS Would Mean for App Developers

If Google does indeed come out with Android Wear for iOS, it will in some ways complicate the lives of app developers. But ultimately, it also will help developers and companies reach more users with their apps.

App developers — whether they’re part of a company’s internal product development team, an enterprise IT group, or an app development company like ArcTouch — need to develop apps that are smart watch enabled. Today, that typically means the iOS developers need to develop companion Apple Watch apps, the Android developers need to develop companion Android Wear apps, and somebody needs to develop Pebble companion apps as well, while the iOS and Android developers hook into the Pebble SDK (if they choose to address this market).

Let’s take Uber for example. It likely has an Android dev team and iOS dev team. Right now, it’s sort of like Congress — they don’t cross the aisle much. There’s an iOS app that runs on iPhone — and a separate WatchKit app, Glances, or actionable notifications that run on the Apple Watch.  Then there’s an Android app for Android phones, and a separate Android Wear app that runs on Android Wear watches. To make its iPhone app extend to an Android Wear watch, Uber would need to embed the theoretical Android Wear SDK for iOS into Uber’s iOS app.

The best part? The Android Wear app that runs on the Android Wear watch wouldn’t need to be rewritten at all. Supporting Android Wear from an iPhone becomes a bipartisan exercise, with both iOS and Android developers working together.

It’s a little more work — but nothing like the effort/cost of developing an app for an entirely new platform (for example, if Uber also wanted to support Pebble). And considering the suddenly bigger and more open market, it’s a no-brainer.  A lot more people could soon be wearing Android Wear smart watches and carrying iPhones that can use Uber. So, this incremental bit of work gets an app like Uber onto the wrists of a lot more happy customers.

What It Would Mean for Apple, Google, and the Wearables Category

If Google does announce Android Wear for iOS, Apple stands to lose some watch sales. But that’s likely to be a short-term impact. In the long run, I think Apple stands to gain as much as anyone.

By this time next year, blog posts (like this one) about wearables and smart watches would be a lot less hypothetical and a lot more real.

Ultimately, breaking down this cross-platform barrier means that there are more possible solutions for potential smart watch users. And like any new product category, having more options will expand the market for phones and watches alike. Suddenly, the growth path of this new category will get much steeper.

This of course represents significant growth potential for Google — it lures more users into its Android ecosystem, enabling Google to license more hardware devices and to expose users to the benefits of its Google Now technology. In turn, this gives Google more eyeballs to leverage for its ad platform, further increasing Google’s revenue.

It would bode well for everyone else in the space, too — Apple, third-party watch makers, app developers and consumers. It means that by this time next year, blog posts (like this one) about wearables and smart watches would be a lot less hypothetical and a lot more real.