At this point, most smartwatch makers have realized that it’s foolish not to support the iPhone.
Google added iPhone support to Android Wear smartwatches in August, and Pebble watches have been able to pair with the iPhone since the first version launched in 2013. Samsung’s new Gear S2 doesn’t work with iPhones right now, but the company is reportedly considering it. Given that the iPhone eats up 92% of smartphone profits, it makes sense for companies to target high-end smartphone users who may have more money to spend on accessories.
The tragedy here is that these smartwatches are almost always better when paired with an Android phone instead. I’d go so far as to say they’re barely worth considering with an iPhone, which is too bad, because some of the best ideas in wearable tech are coming from devices other than the Apple Watch.
I started thinking about this recently while testing Samsung’s Gear S2 for an upcoming review over at Greenbot. The Gear S2 is the first Samsung watch to support almost any modern Android phone, and the first to hook into Android’s existing actionable notification system. That means you can delete emails, reply to texts by voice, or retweet a Twitter mention straight from the notification itself, just like you can on an Android phone.
Notifications are crucial to any smartwatch, as they help you decide whether it’s necessary to take out your phone. But unless you can take action, you’ll still have to deal with those notifications again later on your phone. In effect, you’re creating more work for yourself.
I’ve experienced this firsthand with the latest smartwatches from Pebble. When paired to Android phone, the new Pebble Time offers a full range of actions, including replies by voice. iPhone users can’t do anything except read a notification and dismiss it. (Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky has told me actionable notifications are coming to the iPhone in some way, but it’s unclear how well this will work.)
Even Google couldn’t figure out how to bring full actionable notifications to the iPhone version of Android Wear. Aside from a handful of Google’s own apps such as Gmail, most notifications are read-and-dismiss only.
I don’t know if this was by design, but Android’s openness effectively allows all smartwatches–not just Android Wear ones–to have a pretty good baseline experience. With actionable notifications covered, smartwatch makers are then free to focus on other ways to compete.
It’s unlikely that Apple will extend its own actionable notification system to competing smartwatches. Unlike Google, which makes money from Android when people use Google services, Apple mainly draws its profits from hardware. Apple probably isn’t about to go out of its way to accommodate the Apple Watch’s competition.
But the result–at least for smartwatch obsessives like me–is an inferior experience while using an iPhone. I don’t think any smartwatch is perfect; compared to the Apple Watch, I like Pebble’s long battery life and waterproofness, and I like that Android Wear combines an always-on display with full-blown touch-screen apps. A round display is something you can’t get from Apple Watch either, so it’s nice to have that option.
For smartwatches as a whole, this type of competition is healthy, as device makers learn from each other and push the category forward.
Apple, for instance, established the notion of using more than just a touch screen for interaction with its Digital Crown, but Samsung advanced the idea with its rotating bezel, which in my experience is more accurate for selecting items and scrolling through menu screens. Pebble introduced a timeline-based interface for quickly figuring what’s next on your agenda, and Apple embraced the same concept with Time Travel in its latest software update.
With an iPhone, these ideas aren’t operating on a level playing field, because the basic function of notifications doesn’t work as well. Seeing as this isn’t likely to change anytime soon, I’m glad there’s at least one platform where the best ideas can win.