Should Google Open Up Android Wear?
2014 was going to be the year of the wearable. And it was, insofar as it was the first year that I started to notice news headlines outside of the normal enthusiast channels, covering stories regarding these futuristic devices. Android Wear was released alongside Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, Google Glass became available to anybody, and even the long-rumoured Apple Watch was, at least announced. The previous year, the Pebble watch had shown the demand for something that could provide us with our notifications without having to remove our phones from our pockets by raising a record amount of funding on Kickstarter, and some rivals like Sony were already on their second generation of connected gadget. It seemed as if the technological world had consumed the smartphone, and was now ready and eager to move into the next course and digest the more enticing smart-watch.
2015 was also meant to be the year of the wearable. We’d seen the first fledgling efforts of the major players (sometimes the second, or third, even) and those who hadn’t immediately jumped on board the hype-train were patiently awaiting the next wave of devices, with all the expected refinements that would make this technology essential this time around. But that hasn’t exactly been the case.
I realize, of course, that we’re only half way through the year, and that anyone with an interest in this area is waiting for the new Moto 360, the Samsung Gear A, the Pebble Time, or even the plethora of existing watch manufacturers who are now trying their hand in the smart arena. The fact remains, however, that smartwatches are a nice thing to have, they’re just not completely necessary yet, even though they’re fun and you might miss them when they’re not there. There are a number of reasons for this, and they are issues that have been widely raised – the same issues for the most part that were predicted a few years back. Battery life has to be one of the most prevalent, with most smartwatches having to be charged nightly if used for much more than just glancing at the time. The size, weight and design of current models is still generally on the large or bulky side; after all, watches have been fashion accessories as much as timepieces for a couple of centuries. The aforementioned Moto 360 for example, did well mostly because it looked desirable, and despite the fact that it was released with some underwhelming or out of date internals (that now apparently don’t work very well with the Wear 5.1.1 update). The other thing to note, which hasn’t been fully realized yet due to the age of these gadgets, is the fact that these are essentially mini-computers we’re wearing and will need replacing every few years. They will become out-dated, or stop receiving software updates, or their batteries will suffer the ravages of the daily charge/discharge cycle. It’s hard to stay objective on this subject when you’re a developer with the latest gear and the people you speak to all the time are in the same frame of mind, but I believe these reasons, added to their collective price, have made smart-devices a tough choice for the average consumer.
But there’s a final point that I believe is worth raising (especially here on XDA) that may have been a notable cause of this lack of traction, and it pertains to Android Wear in particular. Google made an interesting choice when creating the current leader in wearable operating systems, by preventing OEM’s from modifying the software and creating their own flavors of it. I admit that this does make a lot of sense, providing not only a consistent user-experience across the board (important with a new platform), but also hugely assisting with the constant ordeal of software updates. But Android has always been open (for the most part), and the fact that smartphone manufacturers were given the freedom to create their own UI’s, add features, and generally demonstrate their own ideas of what the customer needed in a phone, meant that consumers were given a huge range of different options and price points, and had a better chance of finding the right fit for them. With Android Wear, we don’t have that; every smartwatch that runs it works in almost the exact same way, with the only differentiation being the hardware aspect. This means that Google has to directly drive the features that we see, and the options for developers are somewhat limited. Personally, the developers here at XDA are the main reason that I fell in love with Android in the first place; the sheer number of ideas floating around the forums is staggering! Someone, somewhere has managed to get almost every device running the current version of the OS regardless of its age, or its limited specifications, or in some cases, even whether it’s worth doing in the first place. Many of the features we now take for granted were pioneered by an independent developer or third party, and are only now making their way to vanilla Android. Some, like me, prefer the look and feel of an unmodified, Nexus-like experience, but you cannot deny what Samsung’s Touchwiz or HTC’s Sense has done for the adoption of Android as an operating system. You can root Android Wear, you can unlock the Bootloader, you can side-load apps and you can install a custom recovery, but then what? There is no Cyanogenmod for Android Wear, because we’re all running stock anyway, and at the moment it’s down to the developers to come up with apps, and apps only, to make these things sell.
Of course, it’s never going to be one single element that cripples a range of products, it’ll be a combination of a few, but perhaps it is this which is lacking with the current crop of smartwatches. I’ve definitely noticed it, but not everyone will, and it’s important to remember that often with OEM skins comes bloat, messy user interfaces and buggy software experiences. Customization is a corner-stone of Android, and without everyone being able to fiddle around with the software experience on their wrists, Google is, in one way, preventing developers and manufacturers from coming up with the kind of features that could potentially make this platform really attractive to a really important demographic; the first time buyer. Once those users are on-board this technology could really snowball. So perhaps it is up to Google to provide a little wiggle-room on the OS-front, whilst keeping the core experience clean and stable, thus providing a flexible product, great for the basic and advanced user alike. Hey, you can dream, right?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments!