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 self-contained device, capable of connecting to mobile 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 provide health and fitness features.” The Information later added that “Facebook hopes to emphasize features that leverage its social networking skills, such as allowing users to track their workouts with friends or interact with their trainer” and that Facebook “plans enable the device to connect to the services or hardware of health and fitness companies, such as Peloton Interactive.”
Will the project succeed? Let’s say every word in the phrase “Facebook Android smartwatch” is cause for concern. If you exclude the acquired Oculus VR division, Facebook’s hardware efforts have not turned out well. The closest closest project to a smartwatch is the Facebook Phone, also known as the HTC First. Facebook and HTC teamed up in 2013 to design a smartphone using HTC’s hardware and Facebook’s software. Facebook has created a custom Android skin with a new Facebook-focused home screen and a few other additions. The phone lasted a month on the market. Facebook’s newer, less disastrous hardware effort is the Facebook Portal line, a line of video chat devices available in a variety of smart display forms and as a set-top box for your TV. These didn’t sell well in the regular market, but when the pandemic hit, the Portal TV, along with every other video chat device, sold out.
Android doesn’t have much future in smartwatches. Google’s smartwatch-focused version of Android, WearOS, appears to be a dead platform, taking just 10 percent of the global smartwatch market in H1 2020, according to Counterpoint Research’s most recent report. There is no developer base for WearOS because sales are so low. All the gadget makers like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Motorola have fled from the platform, leaving only the fashion brands to fight for the leftovers. Google also seems to have given up development on the platform, with the last major WearOS update coming out in 2018.
It is not clear whether Facebook will actually use WearOS for this smartwatch. The report says that “[t]the watch would run on an open source version of Google’s Android software. WearOS isn’t open source, so making a WearOS watch would mean signing a deal with Google and sticking to the requirements. If the report is up to date on the esoteric licensing of Android source code, it sounds like Facebook Phone will split Android and create its own version of Android for smartwatches, removing all unnecessary features. Facebook would then be responsible for running an app store, creating APIs for developers, and a million others. The Information also drops a fun fact that while early versions of the smartwatch will use a derivative of Android, “Facebook also works.” building a proprietary operating system for future hardware.”
A major driving force behind WearOS’s failure, which Facebook will also have to take into account, is that Qualcomm has historically been less interested in supporting a hardware smartwatch ecosystem. Qualcomm launched its first smartwatch SoC in 2014 and then went six years before releasing a new smartwatch chip that could be considered a major upgrade. The mid-2020 release of the Snapdragon Wear 4100 means Facebook currently has a decent but not great option for a smartwatch chip, but it’s not clear whether Qualcomm plans to reuse that chip for another six years or whether it plans to is to actually now enable year-over-year smartwatch improvements. Apple and Samsung both make their own smartwatch SoCs, which are not for sale to other manufacturers. If you’re looking for a smartwatch SoC to buy, it’s Qualcomm or bust.
The smartwatch market is completely dominated by Apple, which controls 51 percent of the global smartwatch market, according to the same Counterpoint Research report. The rest of the smartwatch market is made up of a bunch of struggling vendors with custom operating systems, all under 10 percent each — companies like Samsung, Huawei, and Garmin.
The information says that Facebook’s smartwatch push is part of a larger plan aimed at “driving the next computing platforms after smartphones”. In the smartphone era, Facebook is at the mercy of the two major suppliers of smartphone operating systems, Google and Apple, neither of which have a particularly good relationship with Facebook. Google rivals Facebook in user, platform and ad tracking. Apple’s commitment to privacy (which it sees as a key differentiator between Android and iOS) has led the company to attack Facebook directly. If Facebook owned the platform, it would have a lot more freedom to do what it wants – freedom that probably involves tracking users.