Google today revealed that it is opening up its smartwatches to the hundreds of millions of iPhone users worldwide.
In a post on the official Google blog, Google unveiled an iOS app for Android Wear, its smartwatch operating system, that makes it possible for iPhone users running iOS 8.2 or greater to pair with new Android Wear smartwatches. Previously, Android Wear smartwatches only paired with Android smartphones.
This is major news, as Google and Apple compete for market share between their two operating systems, Android and iOS.
“On a scale of one to 10, this news goes to 11,” said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas, who is research manager in wearables and mobile phones.
Although Google doesn’t create its own smartwatches, seven brands including Motorola, LG and Sony use its Android Wear software, while the Apple Watch runs on iOS.
This highly anticipated move by Google was an effort to make its operating system — and its smartwatches, which launched just more than a year ago — accessible to as many people as possible. It also no doubt recognized a huge possibility.
Llamas cited the estimated 3.6 million Apple Watches sold since the April launch, which pales in comparison to the number of worldwide iPhone users.
Exact figures aren’t shared publicly, but Apple’s 2014 first-quarter earnings report revealed that one billion iOS devices had been sold to date. It’s estimated that almost 20 percent of U.S. citizens owned an iPhone in 2014 and, according to Apple, 86 percent of its devices are running on iOS8. (Version 8.2 is required to use the app.)
By allowing iPhone users to pair with Android Wear, Google opens up an increasing range of smartwatches to the hundreds of millions of iPhone users worldwide who haven’t bought an Apple Watch.
As Google’s software continues to expand into the premium watch category, it makes sense that it would work with the best-selling smartphone. Currently, the app works on the LG Watch Urbane, and it will work on all future Android Wear watches, like those coming soon from companies including Huawei, Asus, Motorola, Fossil and TAG Heuer.
Apple Watches start at $349, while many current Android Wear watches are less than $300. LG’s Urbane, the only current Android Wear smartwatch to work with this new app, is $349, but past models from Asus, for example, were less than $200.
The experience of pairing an iPhone with an Android-powered smartwatch will be similar to pairing with an Android phone. In addition to providing notifications like phone calls and messages, it supports “rich notifications” (notifications with more information) from services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Now and Apple Calendar. It allows a user to change the watch face, and works with Google-created apps like Google Fit and Translate.
While third-party app notifications that appear on the iPhone screen will appear on the watch, these apps aren’t supported on Android smartwatches, meaning that users won’t get the functionality of a full-blown app. In other words, although there are 4,000 apps available for Android Wear in Google Play, iPhone users cannot download them to their iPhone to use on the Android Wear smartwatch.
Although it’s natural that a Google Play storefront wouldn’t appear on an iPhone, this is a concern, Llamas said. “When you get a smartphone,” Llamas said, “the first thing you do is download a bunch of apps — and suddenly the value and utility has increased. How are you going to increase the utility and value [of an Android Wear smartwatch] for iPhone users?”
According to Llamas’ estimates, by the end of 2015, 81 percent of smartphone users will be using Android, and 13 percent will be using iPhone. However, he said, the vast majority of Android users have entry-level devices that might not support Android Wear.
The various Android Wear options thus far have been a bit in the shadow of the Apple Watch, Llamas said, although the marketing around the launch of the Apple Watch has raised the profile of the smartwatch category in general.
According to an April report from the Switzerland-based Smartwatch Group, the smartwatch market was $1.3 billion in 2014, and is expected to grow to as much as $117 billion by 2020.
Although this news means that iPhone users can use Android Wear watches, the question of whether they will remains to be seen. Apple fans are a traditionally loyal bunch, so those in the market for a smartwatch might turn to an Apple Watch. Still, Apple’s ubiquitous advantage might prove to be a disadvantage. As smartwatches strive to be treated as a fashion accessory, rather than gadget, consumers might crave a more personal, unique timepiece. With the increasing number of styles and prices offered through Android Wear, only time will tell.