Who will win the smartwatch platform war?

Even before the battle for the smartphone platform market has concluded with an outright winner, we have the prospect of  perhaps an even more frenetic battle fought over who will reign supreme in the smartwatch OS war.

Currently we have three main contenders; Android Wear, Tizen and the Apple Watch OS. Whoever wins out could potentially command the smartwatch market for years to come.

But before we look a the relative merits of these platforms, let’s look back to what happened with the smartphone OS market.

At the beginning of 2009 iOS commanded about 15% of the market share, while Android lagged behind with around 8% (remember, the big players at the time were Windows Mobile, Symbian and Blackberry – how quickly things change). Within a year Android had stolen the march on iOS and they were running neck-and-neck at around 10% each. By 2012, Android held over 50% of the market share, double that of iOS. And by first quarter 2014 over 75% of phones shipped ran on the Android platform while Apple phones represented a mere 20%.

Now, what can we learn from this? Android is available for any mobile phone manufacturer who wants it (even Apple, presumably). And therein lies the nub. The open approach of the Android platform, even though it was arguably not as slick or as refined as Apple’s, won through by sheer weight of numbers using it.

And this could be a portent of things to come in the smartwatch market too.

The current Android offering “Wear” is neat and smart, but it is still being improved. Like Android itself it’s a bit like a lovingly built kit car; hours of pottering in the garden shed by undeniably skilled and passionate engineers producing a very respectable product, but always leaving a little more to be desired. Whereas with the Apple product, you know this will be meticulously designed, brim-full of the most innovative features you can think of, and together with hardware painstakingly hewn from the finest materials it will work intimately to produce a perfect, seamless marriage of form and function. This is what Apple has always done. And this is why they will not rush their device out before the end of the year.

Apple also looks to be the company making all the running when it comes to forging partnerships with big players to make their smartwatch the most relevant and useful of all those in the market.

But what of Samsung’s foray into the world of the smartwatch OS? Tizen obviously fulfils a requirement that could not adequately be accomplished by ‘Wear’, given the extensive functionality of Samsung’s ‘Gear’ range of watches. What would otherwise have undoubtedly been an ‘also ran’, the sheer popularity of Samsung phones out there makes this a contender. However Samsung have, as in the early days of their smartphones, hedged their bets a little, releasing a model of watch (the Gear Live) which also runs Android Wear. Having said this, Samsung are pinning a lot of hopes on their proprietary OS (which is, incidentally, a spin-off of Nokia’s defunct “MeeGo” OS), with plans to roll it out across a wide range of devices such as TVs and even smartphones, and to take on Android at their own game by offering it to any manufacturer who would have it in their product.

And where is Microsoft in all this? Rumours that they are very close to announcing their own device were confirmed this morning with news of the ‘Microsoft Band’, a $199 device operating on smart technology which, perhaps very wisely, provides connectivity to most phones out there via the appropriate apps. Maybe Microsoft has got it right here. Perhaps this open approach will be the most successful strategy for the future in this area.