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How Google could make a smart watch that succeeds

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
The world’s best engineers can keep Moore’s law going, but they can’t build a smart watch any significant number of people would want to buy.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A hazy new rumor pegs the code name of Google’s forthcoming smart watch as “Google Gem,” with a launch date of Oct. 31.

The rumor is so fuzzy it wouldn’t be worth talking about except that its outlines help clarify both the bull and bear case for Google’s entry into smart watches.

The Bull case

Google’s rumored smart watch will avoid the mistakes of previous smart watches from Samsung, Sony and various startups, which include working with only one type of phone (Samsung), not doing anything particularly useful (Sony) and being too feature-rich and bulky to really qualify as a “watch” (Samsung, startups).

A Google smart watch that is lightweight, has a long battery life, can work with any Android smart phone and has a useful, Google Glass-like interface isn’t going to be the next iPhone, but it might at least give Google a toe-hold in the market and a platform for experimentation. Having an inferior product didn’t stop Google from launching Android in the first place, and as the platform’s subsequent success demonstrates, in technology one strategy that can work is to simply show up and start iterating.

It’s not as if potentially useful smart watches don’t exist already—Google could simply copy one of them and put its marketing dollars behind the result.

The Bear case

One rumor is that Google’s new smart watch will actually be made by Motorola, and it will only work with the Moto X smartphone. No matter how good it is, in this case, its potential market would be severely limited. If Google makes this mistake, just about every major electronics manufacturer will have tried its hand at smart watches—and failed.

This sets up a perfect market opportunity for Apple and its (rumored) forthcoming iWatch. The appropriate historical analogy in this case is what the market for music players was like when Apple introduced the iPod. MP3 players existed, but none was particularly compelling. Apple’s wait-and-see approach, in which the company does not release a product until its leaders are confident they have a category-defining device, might be just what the smart watch market needs.

Once Apple has figured out what a smart watch is supposed to do, everyone can proceed to copy their design as usual.

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