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Android Wear Compatibility Gap Leaves Open Door for Apple, Microsoft

Mon, 06/30/2014 - 4:41pm
Ben Munson

Fragmentation is the bug that keeps biting Android. It’s been a constant issue for OEMs, developers and end-users. As sure as the seasons change, we can look forward each year to watching Apple CEO Tim Cook gleefully compare iOS adoption rates to Android’s.

With the wearable wars going nuclear, Android’s fragmentation has poked a new hole in the armor. As TechCrunch pointed out, only 23.9 percent of active Android devices run a version of the OS (4.3 or later) compatible with Android Wear.

That 23.9 percent will still translate to a substantial number given Android’s market but the portion of the market missing out is even bigger. It’s tempting to argue that any early adopter ready to jump in on the first wave of Android Wear is likely to be running Jelly Bean or higher so the point is moot. But that doesn’t make it cool for the majority of Android users to be excluded.

When Apple and Microsoft inevitably launch their smartwatches, they’ll have the numbers on their side. Apple will have 90 percent of users on iOS 7 and likely see another mass migration to iOS 8. Windows will have nearly 85 percent of its users on Windows Phone 8 or higher. That will mean their watches, while not going out to the biggest user bases in the industry, will at least be going out to the majority of their user bases.

Android Wear is clearly one of the best wearable operating systems to surface so far. But it’s coming into the world with strikes against it. Samsung, the owner of the largest share of the fledgling smartwatch market, is turning to Tizen OS to power its Gear watches. If it can grow the ecosystem, it may stick around for the long run. In addition, Android has plans to tightly control the Android Wear UI, meaning power Android players like Samsung and HTC won’t be able to customize the OS like they can on smartphones and tablets. On top of all that, most Android phones aren’t compatible with Android Wear.

If Android and the many OEM partners can find a way to close the fragmentation gap, then Android Wear could become as pervasive as its parent software. Of course, if someone releases a commercially viable smartwatch with its own cellular connection, then fragmentation ceases to be a phone-watch pairing issue and becomes a standalone smartwatch problem.

But none of that will occur before Apple and Microsoft roll out their smartwatches, which means that when they do, they’ll have an important leg up on Android.

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