Why Android Wear shipments aren’t surprising (or disappointing)

Wow. There are quite a few people talking about yesterday’s Canalys estimate of 720,000 Android Wear shipments in the last six months of 2014. And most of that talk is ridiculous, with little to no perspective on the market itself. All of the doom and gloom I’m reading about Android Wear may yet come to pass, but to base it on shipment data at this point in time is premature for several reasons.

How about the timing?

First up, when did Android Wear watches start shipping? The platform and first devices were announced in early 2014 but only became available on June 25 when orders began for the LG G-Watch and Samsung Gear Live. So the last six months of Android Wear shipments were also the first six months of shipments. This is essentially a brand new market.

moto 360

And not even all of the Android Wear watches shipped for the full six months. Case in point: [company]Google[/company] showed off the Moto 360 at its June Google I/O event — the crowd went wild — but you couldn’t actually get one until September 4 when the round timepiece was launched. LG added a round watch of its own, the G-Watch R, in November, and Asus debuted its ZenWatch that same month. The point? Some Android Wear hardware partners only had two months or less of shipments in 2014.

Crazy comparisons

Here’s something I can’t understand at all: The comparisons between Android Wear shipments and recent [company]Apple[/company] iPhone sales. What do these two products have to do with each other? Hint: Nothing. But that didn’t stop the comparisons from happening. Here’s one from the Wall Street Journal, placed very high in the story:

By comparison, Apple sold roughly 114 million iPhones over the same period. That means Apple sold almost as many iPhones each day as makers of Android smartwaches shipped over the six months.

For starters, the comparison is looking at a standalone computing device in the iPhone compared to an accessory to a smartphone with Android Wear. If that wasn’t bad enough, it looks at data between the market for an eight-year old product and one that’s less than a year old. Yes, smartwatches have been around for longer than six months, but Android Wear as a product hasn’t. Frankly, it’s ludicrous to even mention the iPhone in the first place when having a conversation about Android Wear.

Tempering expectations

To be honest, we really didn’t need to wait for Canalys to give us an idea of how many Android Wear watches are out in the wild. All we had to do was look at Google Play. Why? Because Android Wear watches are companions to Android phones and those phones need the Android Wear app installed for the watches to get notifications, apps and data. A quick check of the Android Wear app in Google Play shows between 500,000 and 1 million installs, a range that certainly jives with Canalys’s data.

android wear installs

Less than one million Android Wear devices shipped (or sold, for that matter) shouldn’t be surprising, then. I think the surprise factor comes from those who haven’t seen the Android Wear app install numbers combined with expectations of Apple Watch sales. I’ve seen figures in the tens of millions for Apple’s product, which starts shipping in April. If you compare these Apple Watch sales expectations with 720,000 Android Wear devices, sure, there’s bound to be disappointment. But why don’t we wait and see the actual figures before proclaiming that nobody wants an Android Wear watch?

Android Wear v. Pebble

I also saw some Android Wear shipment comparisons to Pebble, and those make a little more sense but still need some context. Pebble shipped its one millionth watch by the end of 2014. One million is more than 720,000 so that’s better, right? Yes and no.

Pebble has been around a bit longer than Android Wear, having raised more than $10 million in a Kickstarter campaign that ended on May 18, 2012. The first watches started shipping in January 2013, so it took Pebble two full years to reach the million shipments; it sold 300,000 in the first year. And two aspects of the Pebble actually give it broader appeal compared to Android Wear.

pebble steel and galaxy gear

Android Wear is limited to working with Android devices, while the Pebble works with both Apple iOS and Google Android. Right off the bat, Pebble can attract buyers who use iPhones. The price of admission for Android Wear is also roughly double that of the Pebble. You can now buy a Pebble for $79, for example, while the least expensive Android Wear device is $199 and works its way up to $249.

It’s too soon for the gloom and doom

Put all of this together and what do you get? The premature death of Android Wear.

We’re talking about a limited market, since this is an accessory device that’s completely optional and may not appeal to every Android device owner. In that regard, the smartwatch market will never exceed that of smartphones, provided these remain companion devices.

Not only are Android Wear watches not needed or wanted by all Android phone owners, but they’re more expensive than similar products. The pricing doesn’t fall into the “impulse purchase” category, particularly when the watches replicated much, if not all, of the functionality found in the smartphone you already own. Heck, out of the 4.6 million smart wearable bands that Canalys says shipped last year, one million of them were Xiaomi Mi bands which you can nab for $20 or less but don’t have any smartphone notification support or apps.

mi-band

And Android Wear is still an infant. There haven’t been many software updates yet and the number of apps for the watches is still pretty limited. Google Now is super handy on the wrist and one of my favorite features, but again: It’s simply the same implementation from the Android phone moved to a watch. Android Wear still has room to grow as a platform; my Sony Smartwatch 3, for example, has integrated Wi-Fi but that radio hasn’t yet been enabled in Android Wear.

Google smartwatch platform isn’t perfect (by far) nor will it appeal to everyone. But let’s give Android Wear watches more time to grow up, gain features that consumers feel they must have on their wrist and come down in price before we decide it’s a loser.