Exploring Android Wear’s Usability Drawbacks and Why It Keeps Stumbling in a Fitness-Oriented Wearable Market
I would consider myself to be part of a very small group of people: each and every day while getting prepared for work, or activities, or just the day in general, I add that little something extra to my wardrobe — a Smartwatch. I am a wearable tech fan, and I have worn a wrist gadget every day for over two years.
To say that the wearable category (outside of dedicated fitness) devices is small would be an understatement. After being on the market for well over 2 years now, Android Wear still suffers from under-performing devices, perhaps best demonstrated when Lenovo-backed Moto announced it would not be producing a smartwatch for the foreseeable future. Pebble, a scraggly company whom many could attribute with the birth of the today’s smartwatch, is a company no longer, having been swallowed up by a now-struggling fitness wearable maker. Even the Apple Watch had to wait a considerable amount of time – a year and a half – before becoming a “success”; and compared to the iPad and iPhone it really isn’t. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how the smartwatch economy really shapes up in terms of market share since there are no dedicated or specific Android Wear numbers, but we do know that Apple holds over 50% of the market. Instead Android Wear is bundled into “Other” which includes other devices like the Fitbit Blaze and various Chinese devices. What we do know is that the market is tough, relatively unprofitable, and immature; yet Google looks to change its standing in this market later this week with the official unveiling of Android Wear 2.0 along with two Nexus-like devices from LG; but is it enough to even matter?
As I mentioned in the onset, I am a smartwatch fan. I currently have 5 smartwatches – 3 Android Wear, a Tizen Gear S2 and the Apple Watch (1st gen SS) – and have worn one every day since the very month Android Wear launched the Moto 360. I am well versed in the benefits and downsides of each platform; and having been testing Android Wear 2.0 for what feels like ages now, I personally feel that AW 2.0 will do little, if anything, to move Google into a more competitive position. The first thing we have to discuss is why people purchase and use smartwatches and wearables in general. I tend to boil it down to three reasons. One of the first reasons people consider wearables is peer pressure. Friends, family members, and co-workers may have X device and they want to do the same, simple enough. A second reason is for notification control, this can be very useful as dismissing unimportant notifications in a more discreet manner without having to use your phone is convenient, especially for us that are a little OCD with notification control. Finally, the third reason is for fitness tracking abilities and overall health monitoring; and this one is key.
3 Reasons for Owning a Smartwatch
Examining those reasons a little more closely though, explains why Android Wear is underperforming so much and why Android Wear 2.0 will do little to fix, what I feel, is a sinking ship. When it comes to the first reason, peer pressure, Android Wear does extremely well. Offering a multitude of devices that span a variety of sizes, looks, and price ranges Android Wear is easily the most accommodating of all 3 major platforms. If you don’t like square watches, then Apple cannot help you. If you wanted a classy polished watch, then Samsung cannot help you. However, Android offers both inexpensive devices and expensive luxury ones. Square, round, flat-tire, sports and classy. Google even takes it a step further by offering the best cross platform experience; even if it is a little limited by nature on iOS. Android Wear dominates this primary reason for owning a wearable by offering a lower entrance cost and supporting almost every modern smartphone on the market today and it should expand into a large market share. The keyword there being “should”, because there are 2 other equally, if not more important reasons to consider.
When it comes to notification control, Android is head and shoulders beyond iOS. I use both platforms regularly and although I enjoy many aspects of iOS more than Android, notifications are a sore subject. From finer granular controls introduced in Nougat, to expandability and actions… the experience is a perfect 10 in execution. This largely extends to the watch, allowing you to easily reply and dismiss notifications on the fly. New features implemented in AW2.0 further add to this with keyboard support and a refined, although more complicated, notification experience.
Samsung comes in a close second here offering what could be considered the cross between the Android and Apple implementation and it is equal parts good and bad. Apple desperately needs help here and until iOS basically duplicates Android’s notification system they will continue to be far behind.
So after examining two of the main reasons why smartwatches exist and why people would want one, and seeing Android’s lead in both the vast array of devices to suit every user, and an outstanding notification experience, why doesn’t Android Wear do well?
That all comes down to the final reason; while Android Wear offers good and affordable devices to purchase, and offers a great notification experience, it offers little to no reason to continue using its wearables. It wasn’t until the Apple Watch came along that I knew just how bad Android Wear was at offering a compelling reason to continue wearing a watch daily; health and fitness tracking. Personally, I wear a smartwatch because I am a nerd and techhead, but most other people aren’t and are bothered having yet “another device to charge”. But if that device offers an always running, forefront reason to keep wearing it many will keep wearing it indeed — and they do. This even extends to people who many not have even purchased the device for that particular reason. To put simply: Apple’s outstanding, and aptly named “Activity” application is the #1 reason I keep wearing my Apple Watch, even if I am carrying my Pixel.
“Activity” (screenshots below) tracks your active calories, counts your steps, monitors your standing hours and gives you a feedback of your exercise activity, like many other “fitness” applications. It also is always monitoring your heart rate and uses this information to provide timely feedback about how you are doing. All of this information is also seamlessly fed back into a zero impact application, Apple Health, which allows you to see a total overview your healthiness. Credit where it is due, Samsung has done an outstanding job on S-Health offering a similar, if a bit diluted, experience, but Apple takes it to another degree in ease of use and approachability of the data providing a lot of it, but easily digested. Now I know what many are thinking, “I really don’t care about that” and you are right, that is exactly how I felt; until Samsung and Apple showed the usefulness of having an excellent monitoring experience at no cost of mine in time or effort. I didn’t have to go through a lengthy setup process, or try and figure out how many calories I should expend “actively” through a day, and when I go out for a walk at work I don’t have to worry about starting an exercise or activity, because my wearable will do it for me and relay the information at a later time. Further, there is minimal if any impact to your phones battery since all the tracking is done on the wearable which easily lasts a day, and the data is transmitted to the phone after thereby being low impact. I cannot stress the importance of providing a totally transparent experience that requires zero effort and is continually updating you without being a burden or annoying. If there is a balance to be struck to both keep me regularly and continually involved, and not feel like a nagging fitness trainer; Apple has walked that tightrope like a champ.
“Android Wear offers little to no reason to continue using its wearables… and that’s a problem”
… Google Still Misses the Mark
Google has done what it does best with Android, saturated the market with affordable devices that appeal to everyone and leveraged its strong points to its advantage. Easing into the platform is simpler than all others, and available on all devices. But it falls flat on its face when it actually comes to giving a good reason to continue wearing your smartwatch and Android Wear 2.0 looks to do nothing to change this; the more affordable device lacks a heart rate monitor, a basic feature for an advanced wearable. LTE and GPS are cool things to have on your watch, but people want an LTE and GPS for one reason, fitness. Few if any will think of going to the local grocery store without their phone just because their watch has LTE; but being able to fully track a run, walk, or bike ride and not having to bring your phone is a huge, if not the only reason to own a more feature-full smartwatch. Google compounds this issue by doing none of this on its own and instead relies on third party software that sees little improvement due to fragmentation and a small user base.
I’m not saying that Android Wear 2.0 will fail, but if you see your ship is sinking and competitors like Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit are crushing you and every one of them offers an excellent fitness tracking system despite having higher costs, less features, and less diversity; you need to right the ship and make changes, and it looks like Google has not even acknowledged it as a problem yet. All of this may seem inconsequential if you don’t care about fitness tracking, and I know because I was and largely still am part of that crowd.
But if getting a badge for a week straight of breaking my “move” goal keeps that watch on my wrist and the others on their charger, they are doing something right and it isn’t inconsequential, it’s essential to the platform’s success and viability. The app paradigm on smartwatches has largely failed, and even though notifications is what Wear excels at, it’s not enough to sell devices. In order to get Android Wear moving, Google needs to offer an experience you want to fit into your busy life every single day while offering a perceptible benefit to its user.
What do you think can get smartwatches the success they once aimed for? Discuss in the comments, we’d love to hear your thoughts!