Here’s a statement that should fill everyone with optimism: Facebook is building an Android smartwatch! That’s according to a new report from The Information, which says the watch should hit the market next year.
Sources tell The Information that the watch will be a standalone device, able to hook up to cellular networks without tethering to a smartphone. The report makes it sound like Facebook wants to build its own smartwatch ecosystem, saying the device will “let wearers send messages using Facebook’s services and also offer health and fitness features.” The Information later added that “Facebook hopes to emphasize features that utilize its social networking prowess, such as allowing users to track their workouts with friends or communicate with their trainer” and that Facebook “plans to allow the device to connect to the services or hardware of health and fitness companies, such as Peloton Interactive.”
Will the project be successful? Let’s just say that every word in the phrase “Facebook Android smartwatch” is cause for concern. If you exclude the acquired Oculus VR division, Facebook’s hardware efforts haven’t panned out well. The closest previous project to a smartwatch is the Facebook Phone, aka, the HTC First. Facebook and HTC teamed up in 2013 to design a smartphone using HTC’s hardware and Facebook’s software. Facebook made a custom Android skin with a new, Facebook-centric home screen and a few other additions. The phone lasted one month on the market. Facebook’s newer, less historically disastrous hardware effort is the Facebook Portal line, which is a series of video chat devices available in several smart display form factors and as a set-top box for your TV. These did not sell well in the normal market, but when the pandemic hit, the Portal TV sold out along with every other video chat device.
Android does not have much of a future in smartwatches. Google’s smartwatch-focused version of Android, WearOS, seems like a dead platform, having only captured 10 percent of the global smartwatch market in H1 2020, according to the most recent report from Counterpoint Research. There’s no developer base for WearOS, because sales are so low. All the gadget manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Motorola have fled the platform, leaving only the fashion brands to fight over the scraps. Google seems to have abandoned development of the platform, too, with the last major WearOS update releasing in 2018.
It’s not clear if Facebook will actually use WearOS for this smartwatch. The report says that “[t]he watch would run on an open source version of Google’s Android software.” WearOS is not open source, so making a WearOS watch would involve signing a deal with Google and adhering to its requirements. If the report is up to date on the esoteric licensing of Android source code, it sounds like Facebook will fork Phone Android and make its own version of Android-for-smartwatches, stripping out any unnecessary features. Facebook would then be responsible for running an app store, making developer APIs, and a million other things. The Information also drops a fun tidbit that, while initial versions of the smartwatch will run some derivative of Android, “Facebook is also working to build its own operating system for future hardware.”
A major driving force behind the failure of WearOS, which Facebook will also have to reckon with, is that Qualcomm has historically not been that interested in supporting a smartwatch ecosystem with hardware. Qualcomm launched its first smartwatch SoC in 2014 and then went six years before it released a new smartwatch chip that could be considered a major upgrade. The mid-2020 release of the Snapdragon Wear 4100 means that Facebook currently has a decent-but-not-great option for a smartwatch chip, but it’s not clear if Qualcomm intends to rehash that chip for another six years or if it plans to actually enable year-over-year smartwatch improvements now. Apple and Samsung both make their own smartwatch SoCs, which aren’t for sale to other manufacturers. If you’re searching for a smartwatch SoC to buy, it’s Qualcomm or bust.
The smartwatch market is completely dominated by Apple, which according to that same Counterpoint Research report has 51 percent of the global smartwatch market. The rest of the smartwatch market is a bunch of struggling vendors with bespoke operating systems, all under 10 percent each—companies like Samsung, Huawei, and Garmin.
The Information says Facebook’s smartwatch push is part of a larger plan aimed at “controlling the next computing platforms after smartphones.” In the smartphone era, Facebook is at the mercy of the two big smartphone operating system vendors, Google and Apple, neither of which have a particularly good relationship with Facebook. Google is a rival of Facebook in user tracking, platforms, and ads. Apple’s push for privacy (which it sees as a key differentiator between Android and iOS) has led the company to directly attack Facebook. If Facebook owned the platform, it would have a lot more freedom to do what it wants—freedom which probably involves tracking users.