It's not enough to call it "Pixel." To help Google's watch stand apart, it requires a significant value-add.
Google's first formal push into smartwatches is gaining traction, according to rumours. For many years, what seemed like a fiction is suddenly looking more and more like a certainty as details about the impending Pixel Watch leak from various sources. That got me thinking: what exactly is the genuine value proposition of a Google-made watch? What features would a Pixel Watch have that would set it apart from other Android smartwatches? And, to be honest, I don't have a definitive response.
I speak as someone who has been following Android's smartwatch initiatives from the beginning. I've had the original LG G Watch, the G Watch R, the Huawei Watch Classic, Skagen Falster, Misfit Vapor X, and now the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4. I used to wear my watches diligently every day for a number of years. Now? Despite the fact that Samsung's newest wristwatch is the greatest I've ever had, I can go days, if not weeks, without thinking about it. It rests on my charger until I realise it's there, at which point I take it up, put it on for a day or two, and pretend it's worth the hundreds of dollars I paid for it.
With its large display, adequate keypad, and complete app capability, I simply find it more convenient to reach for my phone. In addition, I wear a tiny Fitbit Inspire 2 to track my activity and sleep during the day and night. On a charge, it lasts roughly a week.
My problem isn't with Samsung or the Galaxy Watch 4, but with the entire product offering. Although Android-based watches have been around for more than eight years, the product category has seen little growth or progress during that period. Sure, we've switched from power-hungry 28nm phone CPUs to more efficient 4nm and 5nm wearable processors, we've reduced bezels, enhanced display clarity, removed the flat tyre, and added a few tiles and intricacies, but Wear OS is essentially the same it has always been.
It does some limited fitness monitoring but fails to integrate it into a larger health-centric ecosystem, and it is a second-class citizen for the majority of third-party apps (Apple Watch support comes first for many developers). On it, even Google Assistant is a sluggish, laggy, and unresponsive disaster. The majority of smartwatches that run on the platform are designed to be fashionable first and functional second. Wear OS isn't new; it's been around for eight years.
I realise that's a harsh statement, but isn't it the truth?
Even on the hardware side, the diversity that made the ecosystem unique in the first place has all but vanished. LG, Motorola, Sony, Asus, and a slew of other companies have dropped out of the wearables market, leaving Fossil — and its various subbrands — and Samsung as the only major contenders. Every few of years, we obtain one hardware blueprint (one processor, one RAM configuration, one display) from Fossil, which is then rehashed in different names and shapes indefinitely. When not in use, all watches have a spherical screen that looks nice but is worthless for showing more than two or three lines of text. They all only last about a day on a charge. They all have the same problems with controls and responsiveness.
Wear OS 3.0 received a breath of fresh air thanks to Samsung's relationship with Google. More sensors and measurements, a stronger health environment, a rotating bezel for controls, and a more powerful phone companion app are all features to look forward to. Even though it pushed Samsung's ecosystem more than Google's, it disrupted the current quo and certainly struck a chord.
The Pixel Watch will compete with the Galaxy Watch 4, not with the hundreds of fashion-branded Fossil watches. That's already a huge hurdle to overcome. Beyond that, Google requires a differentiator to set itself apart from its competitors. That's where I'm at a loss for words.
The Pixel Watch will have the same circular, inefficient screen shape, and while I admire the sleekness of the design, I'd like to see Google offer a rectangular version with more screen real estate. Its battery life is anticipated to be one day, necessitating daily charge and interfering with continuous activity/sleep tracking. Fitbit integration appears to be a different app, and it's unclear whether we'll get background Fitbit tracking or if Google Fit and Fitbit will coexist.
So, what would this Pixel Watch's value proposition be? What distinguishes it from its competitors' smartwatches? What sets it apart from fitness trackers that can display notifications, such as the Fitbit Versa 3? What makes it a necessary phone accessory, even better? So far, no leak or rumour has provided an answer. It's just another Wear OS watch with the Google logo on it.
When Google officially launches the Pixel Watch, I'd love to see them prove me wrong. I'd like to be shocked by new features and functionality that break free from Wear OS's eight-year shackles. But I'm not convinced.
In the smartphone market, the "Pixel" brand has become linked with photographic brilliance and artificial intelligence. We'll have to wait and see what, if anything, that brand implies in the wearable segment.