Last week, Google announced Android Wear, a new version of its venerable Android operating system for wearables. The search giant has made a Developer Preview immediately available for third-party applications. Motorola and LG also named upcoming smartwatches to be based on the new platform.
That sparked a frenzy of articles proclaiming everything from “Google Beats Apple to Market in Smartwatches” and “Google Beats Apple in Smartwatch Race” to “Google has officially kicked off the wearables era … and Apple just fell a little further behind.”
Maybe Google (GOOG) will beat Apple in smartwatches and maybe they won’t, but that question can only be answered in the future. Truth is, neither company has a product. At this point, Android Wear is nothing but a developer preview and some admittedly very cool videos. The smartwatch market is still anyone’s game.
All the hoopla highlights three interesting points, though. First, that vaporware and media hype are still very much alive and well in the technology industry. Second, it underscores the dramatic difference between the way Apple and Google develop and launch products.
Google puts things out there in advance, sometimes way in advance, in the case of Google Glass. It likes to get people talking and developers developing. That’s because Google depends on search advertising, not product sales, to make a living. Its business model necessitates platform adoption across a broad ecosystem of third-party developers and device manufacturers.
Apple’s launch strategy is so completely different, you’d think the Cupertino company was on a different planet, not just a quick 10 minute jaunt down Silicon Valley’s Highway 85 from Google’s Mountain View headquarters.
With rare exception, when Apple launches a new product, you can buy or at least order it that day. And it doesn’t breathe a word about it until then. Sure, it has app and chip developers working in advance, but they’re sworn to secrecy. Apple (AAPL) can teach the NSA plenty about how to keep things quiet.
Another difference between the two companies is the way they develop and manufacture products. Apple develops and designs nearly every aspect of its devices in house. And while it does outsource most of its manufacturing, it maintains tight control over assembly partners.
Google, on the other hand, depends primarily on acquisitions to accelerate its entrance into new markets and expand its advertising reach. YouTube, DoubleClick, Motorola, Waze, and Nest are among the more than 140 companies Google has bought. It’s easy to forget that Android was once an independent company. So was WIMM Labs, the smartwatch developer that kick-started Google’s Android Wear platform.
The third and most important point is that, contrary to all the media hype, there actually is no race to be first in smartwatches. If the breakout success of both Apple and Google has taught us anything, it’s that the first-mover advantage is nothing but a myth.
There were loads of MP3 players before Apple launched iPod and iTunes, now the dominant online music platform. Blackberry was the undisputed king of the nascent smartphone market until Apple launched iPhone and ignited a worldwide phenomenon. And iPad came out more than a decade after the first tablets.
Google also learned the same lesson, if not at Apple’s expense. It followed its neighbor to the south into smartphones and tablets and, today, Android dominates both markets. And Google certainly wasn’t the first Internet search engine. It was preceded by Excite, Infoseek, AltaVista, Lycos, and Yahoo, among others.
Clearly, being first to market has no bearing on who ends up dominating a market.
In case you need further evidence that the media is blind drunk on Google Wear Kool-Aid, one article called “Smartphones are fading. Wearables are next,” actually declared, “The high of the smartphone and tablet revolution is wearing off … Sales of mobile devices are still growing but quickly leveling off.”
I literally had to check to make sure that wasn’t a spoof article from The Onion. Reality check: According to Gartner, worldwide tablet sales grew 68 percent in 2013. Likewise, smartphone sales grew 42 percent to nearly a billion units last year, surpassing sales of standard phones for the first time. Fading? Leveling off? You’ve got to be kidding.
Not surprisingly, that same article went on to say, “Google beat Apple to the punch …” If by “punch” it meant Kool-Aid, I couldn’t agree more.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.