After announcing it in March, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) finally unveiled Android Wear at its developers conference on Wednesday. Like Android, Android Wear is a platform rather than a unified product, but will be available to consumers through two devices -- the G Watch and Gear Live -- early next month.
Unfortunately, neither of these watches include much in the way of biometric technology -- widely rumored to be the defining feature of Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) highly anticipated iWatch.
An extension of your smartphone
As it stands, Google's Android Wear functions to merely extend a user's Android smartphone. Android apps can be customized for the watch, making them easier and more convenient to use, and notifications are displayed on the watch's face, allowing owners of Android handsets to keep their phone in their pockets.
But Android Wear doesn't offer anything in the way of a compelling new experience. Not having to actually pull a smartphone out of a pocket to browse notifications may be convenient, but it's not necessary -- that is to say, an Android Wear device doesn't offer much beyond what's already available on a typical Android handset.
Besides running a modified version of Google's mobile operating system, LG's G Watch and Samsung's Gear Live don't differ significantly from Samsung's already existing line of Gear smartwatches. Samsung's watches, running its own Tizen operating system, are restricted to Samsung's Galaxy phones -- Android Wear devices will work with nearly any modern Android handset.
But given that Samsung sells more smartphones than any other company (beating Apple by a wide margin) its relative success in smartwatches may serve as a good proxy for the expected success of devices running Google's Android Wear.
According to Strategy Analytics, Samsung shipped just 500,000 Galaxy Gears in the first quarter of 2014. As a new product category, that could be considered impressive, but as a percentage of Samsung's total smartphone sales (roughly 85 million, according to IDC) it's inconsequential.
Apple could use health as a key selling point
According to The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) Apple has much higher expectations for its forthcoming smartwatch. No one knows for certain that Apple is even planning to release such a device, but the Journal's sources claim that Apple intends to ship 10 million -15 million smartwatches this year.
That would make it's iWatch business about one-tenth the size of its iPhone business. In that case, Apple's iPhone would still account for the vast majority of the company's revenue and profit, but the iWatch could have a meaningful impact on Apple's business in its very first year.
Apple's confidence in its smartwatch may be driven by its focus on differentiation. For months, Apple's iWatch has been rumored to be a product primarily focused on health -- those rumors were given credence by the announcement of HealthKit, a new app set to be included in iOS 8, the forthcoming update to Apple's mobile operating system. HealthKit serves as a biometric dashboard, allowing a user to easily access the data their connected devices are collecting.
The Journal claims that Apple's iWatch will include as many as 10 sensors, most of which will be centered around monitoring the wearer's biometrics and fitness level. To be fair, Samsung's Gear Live includes a heart rate monitor, but that's fairly basic -- even its Galaxy S5 smartphone has a heart rate sensor.
Android Wear is lacking
Google is making it possible for its Android partners to create more health-focused products down the line -- Google Fit, an equivalent, alternative service to Apple's HealthKit, is coming to Android later this year.
But until its hardware partners take advantage of Google Fit, Android Wear might see surprisingly little adoption, on par with the tepid reception Samsung's Gears have so far received. If Apple's first-generation iWatch can do more than simply extend the wearer's iPhone, it could easily outsell the Android-powered competition.
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