What were they thinking?

urbane_lteWith its new Watch Urbane LTE, LG has gone with a WebOS derivative rather than use Android Wear, as all their other smartwatches do. What’s that about?

It seems clear that LG wanted a watch to compete with its arch-rival Samsung’s Gear S, which packs an LTE radio for voice and data access directly from your wrist. This is the headline feature of the Urbane LTE – it’s right there in the name. And since Android Wear doesn’t support cellular connectivity, LG needed an alternative. [The Gear S gets around this limitation by running Tizen, Samsung’s own mobile OS, on which it’s based most of its smartwatches to date.]

But even given that requirement, WebOS seems an odd choice. It’s hard to imagine that many developers will create new apps – or port existing ones – for an ecosystem that contains exactly one device. And without apps, any smart device faces an uphill battle for consumer acceptance.

Why didn’t LG just use Android? Not Android Wear, but a parallel fork of the AOSP. I can’t imagine that it would have been significantly harder than adapting WebOS, and it would have gone a long way toward addressing the app problem. There are currently thousands of developers building for Android Wear, which is 95% pure Android. We’ve already made our apps work on the smartwatch form factor; it would be a much shorter path for us to rewrite the Wear-dependent bits than to start over from scratch.

As an aside, though, there is one interesting aspect to the WebOS choice. As its name implies, WebOS is based on web technologies: “native” WebOS apps are actually little web pages, with functionality written in JavaScript. You know what other smartwatch OS uses the same architecture? Tizen. That’s right, the easiest watch apps to port to LG’s new shiny will be those written for its mortal enemy, Samsung’s Gear line.

All this is an issue because Google is maintaining much tighter control over Wear than it historically has over Android generally. This means that all platform-level innovation needs to come from Mountain View, rather than being driven by partners – and clearly, this is holding the ecosystem back. Major OEMS, like Samsung and LG, have already chosen to use other platforms rather than live within Android Wear’s limitations. There are two likely results of this situation.

First, Wear is unlikely to achieve the same kind of market-share dominance in wearables  that Android enjoys in mobile. Whenever a vendor does want to push the envelope, it’ll need to do as Samsung and LG have: use another OS. That fragments the wearable space.

And second, Wear is likely to be far less rich and diverse than Android has been on phones and tablets. We won’t get the experimentation, we won’t find any interesting new use cases that Google doesn’t see coming.

But in the wider world of wearables, innovation will happen. And when a bold new idea does resonate with consumers and take off – there’s a good chance it won’t be Android Wear doing it.