This past week has seen the launch of a number of new smartphones thanks to Mobile World Congress. The trade show, held every year in Barcelona, Spain has seen its fair share of wearable action throughout the week. Last year, Huawei chose Mobile World Congress to first announce their fantastic Huawei Watch, but this year things were a little quiet on the Android Wear front. No new Android Wear devices were announced, and there were no new announcements regarding Google’s smartwatch platform. Of course, this isn’t to say that Google don’t have big plans coming up for Android Wear for the rest of 2016, but it could be that Google’s Android Wear platform is facing competition from Chinese brands.
This week we saw Haier, the Chinese white goods giants, launch their own smartwatch. It was a surprise to a lot of us, because the device didn’t run Android Wear, but a version of Android 5.1 they had concocted themselves. This is become a bigger problem than you might think for Google. The majority of smartwatches that are launching in China, or even just manufacturered by Chinese brands aren’t running Android Wear. Despite the fact that they have similar specs and similar form factors. We saw ZTE, a big, well-known Chinese brand show off their Axon Watch at the watch, again not running Android Wear. MediaTek has a chip specifically designed for smartwatches that’s found powering the attractively-priced Mobvoi Tickwatch, again, no Android Wear. Why is this a problem for Google? Smartwatches don’t have to run Android Wear to be considered useful, we just have to take a look at the Pebble line of devices to know that, but the more operating systems and platforms that are out there, the more confusing it gets for the consumer. While that might not matter here in the West, where Android Wear is found on the majority of smartwatches these days, but in China, Android Wear could become “just another” smartwatch OS.
There’s a simple theory of why this keeps on happening, and it’s probably down to the fact that Android Wear itself isn’t Open Source. Google Play Services are basically non-existent in China, but devices like the Honor 5X, Elephone M2, Meizu Pro 5 and others all run Android and are compatible with the same apps that say, a Galaxy S7 is. This is because these manufacturers can easily create a device and then use the AOSP to create a ROM or build of Android for their own hardware. When selling in the West, they can either seek approval for Google Play Services, or they can go ahead and tell users how to sneakily install the Play Store and such on their own. Android Wear has no such option, and even if there were a similar solution, Google Play Services are so heavily ingrained into Android Wear, that it’d be difficult to ship a watch without it.
The Chinese market might be reaching saturation of sorts where smartphones are concerned, there’s still a lot of growth where wearables are concerned. In just a few years, the Xiaomi Mi Band has helped the Chinese upstart become the second-biggest wearables company in the world, just behind Fitbit and above Apple. If this isn’t proof that there’s an appetite for low-cost wearables in China, than I don’t know what is. If anyone can produce low-cost Android Wear smartwatches, it’s companies like Elephone, Oukitel, possibly even Meizu and Xiaomi themselves, but they can’t. Google Play Services needs to become available in China for Android Wear to get a kickstart in the region, and if this could enable budget brands to make affordable Android Wear devices, they could be shipped West to help get more people involved in the platform overall. Sadly, as history tells us, it’s unlikely Google will be allowed back into China any time soon.