Is Google Focusing Enough on Wear’s Future?
Android Wear is a platform that is not for everybody, at least not yet. As of now, smartwatches have not found a motive to enter the mainstream consumers’ lives. One could argue that the competition is making huge strides in this regard, but despite the pragmatic advances seen in the latest additions from all parties, smartwatches today are not much more than glorified notification glancers.
And I say this as the biggest Wear lover in the XDA Portal Team. I’ve purchased three Wear watches to date, but not without discounts. Without those, I probably wouldn’t have bought a single one. As they stand, Wear watches are useful, but hardly enough to justify paying over $200 for one if you are not a power users or would really benefit from having one. I fall in both camps, but because I am a little cheap, I still hesitated and only bought them on sales (got my Moto 360 for just $60!). I do believe that the best of Wear is yet to come… whenever Google wants it to. Keep in mind that the following is mostly based on my personal opinions and worries, so take this feature as an editorial instead of our usual analysis.
As our team covered Google I/O, we could not help but be utterly disappointed at Google’s presentation on Wear. We had our hopes high – a little too high, perhaps – and we expected new software and hardware. The internet was already buzzing with predictions about a new Moto 360 being announced at the event, but to our surprise, nothing of the sort happened. Google spent a few minutes talking about their latest software version (which had its debut with the Urbane), and touted its capabilities. We didn’t hear anything substantial regarding the future of Wear, other than the fact that more watches were coming. This left a sour taste in our mouth, but most importantly got us to think about the platform.
The main keynote focused on Android M, the upcoming Brillo, Weave, and many improvements to all of their platforms. Wear saw no practical news. This is a problem, mainly because the smartwatch game should be picking up by now, and competition is getting tougher in this space. The Apple Watch did really well for being such an unnecessary gadget, Samsung’s Tizen smartwatches have been getting increasingly refined iteration after iteration and a new round watch is said to be coming, the Pebble Time is arriving after a successful Kickstarter campaign (again!) and the webOS in the Urbane LTE got very good reviews as well. None of this means that Wear is in trouble by default, but without a clear vision for the platform in crucial times, I am starting to fear that its potential might remained unexploited for longer than it should.
The latest 5.1 revision for Wear brought the much needed wrist gestures and Wi-Fi support (which helps with feature parity against the competition), but the update still hasn’t fully rolled out – particularly when it comes to the Moto 360, which is arguably Wear’s flagship. As the number of Wear watches grows bigger, the Google-centric rollouts seem to become more inconsistent. On April 20th, Google said that the update should be rolling out “in the next few weeks”, yet 6 weeks later, tens of thousands of users (meaning a significant chunk of Wear owners) don’t have the latest software. Google’s tight hold on Wear manifests itself in other worrying ways as well:
Android as a platform evolved rapidly, and this was partially because of the freedom it gave OEMs when it came to experimenting with software and hardware. We saw Android phones with all sorts of innovations in these regards, but as it stands, Wear’s closedness does not allow for key developments. A big aspect of smartwatches as a concept is health and fitness, but different kinds of monitoring sensors for other tasks could also be huge on the platform. While Android phone makers had freedom to put anything from screen projectors to UV light sensors on their phones, without being able to modify the base software the task becomes much harder on Wear. This halts the possible innovations that OEMs could bring to the table for the sake of consistency, but it does seem to go against Google’s “be together, not the same” mentality as the watches are ultimately the same in software UX.
What this means is that Google has wider control as to how the platform will evolve: we see this with Wi-Fi, for example, as Wear devices were capable of the function out of the box but did not get the feature enabled until this latest update. In this way, through software, Google can dictate the course of hardware advancements. And if Google does not take Wear the right way themselves, the platform could stumble and be left in the dust by its strong competition. By centralizing the evolution, Google also maximizes their responsibility and sacrifices possible innovations in a segment that should be highly innovating. Holding Wear back from acquiring new software that could also accommodate new hardware is not the only thing that could be considered a misdirection by Google. The place where I see failed potential so far is Wear’s role in the Internet of Things.
If we are to control our appliances with our voice or touchscreens, doing so by operating a smartwatch is intuitively more convenient than doing so with a phone. After all, a watch is attached to our wrists at all times instead of laying on a table or inside a pocket. With Wear watches’ Wi-Fi capabilities, they could also act as a remote control independently of a phone. There are plenty of DIY smartwatch home-automation remote guides out there, and most achieve this through Tasker and similar means. The results can be impressive, and some even (rightfully call it) the “Holy Grail” for Home Automation. If home automation can be made easy from your watch with a hacked-together Tasker solution, imagine how amazing it could get if the functionality was natively tied to Google’s upcoming Project Brillo developments!
Now, there is no point in doomsaying or condemning the future of the platform because of this temporary slip. But as a fan of this technology, I want its future to be bright. The platform’s UX vision is already better than that of its main competitor, but as of now it still feels rather unfocused. There are many upcoming releases that we know of be – it through hints, teases or announcements – that could refresh the hype for Wear. The Tag Heuer collaboration should be a pricey yet interesting alternative, as it is claimed to be upgradeable. The Moto 360’s second iteration will allegedly focus on customization, and most likely improve upon every aspect of its predecessor. The recent Asus Zenwatch 2 announcement did not shock us with anything except its ridiculous bezels, though, so in a sense we feel that this was a missed opportunity. As far as hardware goes, we can expect some neat additional choices before the year is up.
I have no doubt that Google will neatly integrate Wear into their Internet of Things developments – this is a no-brainer, and if they don’t do it right, our power users and developers will find a way. The question is whether they’ll do it right away, and whether they do it right. ATAP’s Project Soli could being an innovative new way of inputting commands on smartwatches, and the upcoming Wear hardware is likely to surpass our expectations. But we know Google: they tease developments that generate hype, then underwhelm us with their releases; overtime these get improved and they get us to the original vision and promises. But as Google expands their ambitions in technology and incorporates more and more platforms to their Android suite, things seem get diluted.
Last year was admittedly not the predicted “Year of Smartwatches”, and with VR and IoT picking up, wearables in general seem to be losing the hype they had a few years back. Google will not abandon Wear, and we know that great things are coming. But it is a little worrying to not see a more consolidated focus on what could have an amazing synergy with the rest of their products. I love this platform and do not want to see it fall behind the competition. Hopefully Google will reveal progressive plans for their smartwatches – that is support for new hardware sensors, new great devices, better integration with their products and all the innovation that this space needs to stay relevant and break into the mainstream. For now, I am left waiting for the sweet update that they love to tout so much.
Where do you think Google is taking Wear, and where would you want them to take it? Sound off in the comments!