Wear Openness & Possible Model Alternatives
We say this time and again: openness is our favorite bit of Android. Without it, XDA wouldn’t be what it is. From the ability to switch launchers to the open-source framework itself, Google allowed anyone (with a bit of knowledge) to have a shot at making their smartphone vision come true, be it through apps, ROMs, or other inventive solutions like our beloved Xposed. I’m sure many of you heard the stories of Android withdrawal from those unlucky enough to be forced out of the ecosystem they adore (maybe you lived it first hand), and the countless blog posts about Android conversions also speak great lengths about the virtues of this model.
But the Android brand now stretches past just smartphones, and their incursions into the realms of television, cars and home appliances are spreading the little robot into every aspect of our lives. Google’s OS made it on our daily carry a second time with Wear – this time sporting an entirely different model of updates and customization. And by different I actually mean contrasting, given that Wear allows you to customize only your watchface: after that, the most you can do to make the watch yours is come up with settings permutations different from the next person’s.
Many originally loved this model, and plenty still do. Wear surfaced at a time were Android fragmentation was making itself much more noticeable, and after the yearly update delays by OEMs throttling Android once more, the growing dispersion of OS versions on handsets and the heavy modifications of UIs like TouchWiz, Google decided to put a stop to it on their new baby platform. As a result, Wear software is mostly managed by Google, and firmware updates are rolled out by the Mountain View search giant itself. The homogeneity of Wear is also seen in internal hardware, as most devices sport nearly identical configurations except for battery and displays. Storage, RAM, and SoC’s however are mostly the same, with a few odd exceptions such as the TI chipset in the Moto 360.
The close resemblance in hardware undoubtedly plays in Google’s favor, too. And with these advantages over the smartphone counterpart, the wearable Android OS sees extremely efficient update distribution, and most devices see their respective rollouts very close to each other. I never had to wait very long for updates on my Gear Live, and surely this is something all of Wear users love. As far as update rollouts go, Wear is, for the most part, a success.
At the same time, many feel that Wear does not offer enough to warrant a purchase at this stage, and it didn’t months ago either. This is what we feel is one of the weakest points of the wrist Android: useful innovation. While updates like Lollipop brought with it plenty of new useful features as well as the usual optimizations in performance and navigation, Wear settles for the latter bits. Each update provided marginal improvements to the experience that streamline it into a more efficient vision of Google’s “short interactions” approach. And to me, while the 5.0 update offered some nice shortcuts and time-trimming, it didn’t do too much. The latest update did virtually nothing for my user experience as well.
The frequent updates have added little to the experience, and while a few nice additions (like music playback support) surely stood out, nothing was added to make the device worthy of mainstream adoption. This problem may or may not harm the platform in the near future, when the Apple Watch hits stores. And many believe that the reason for this is Google’s own closed ecosystem nature on Wear – an irony given Android’s success is based on the contrary.
Huawei itself has recently called for more openness in Wear. This company recently announced the notable Huawei Watch, which had gained a lot of internet buzz for its premium, real-watch design as well as standard specifications but with sapphire glass for additional protection. The company, like many OEMs and even users, realizes that the closed ecosystem of Android Wear doesn’t allow for the same level of experimentation – from not only OEMs, but independent developers as well.
Take the case of Android Wear development on XDA. We were concerned with the direction of Wear before it was even a physical reality, and sadly the expectations we had for custom mods, ROMs and tweaks were all but fulfilled. Most Wear devices have pretty inactive development support, mainly because there’s little to develop for in both reasons and possibilities. The homogenous nature of Wear, coupled with the small penetration and the added complexity (relative to Android) of every step of the way for both developers and users make tweaking the platform rather unappealing. Sure, you can root, but there’s not much of a reason to. You can install custom recoveries on it too, but more for novelty than usual XDA flashing business. And finally, there are a couple of ROMs hanging around such as Gohma, but their offerings are severely limited by the constraints of Wear.
But the modifications of OEMs have always played a big role in proper Android’s evolution as well. Many experimentations by OEMs, in both hardware and software, eventually became smartphone and AOSP standards. The straying of OEMs, albeit fragmented, managed to end up in a positive sum towards evolutive aspects of Android. The additional competition in the software side made each OEM try to refine their tactics to provide a useful user experience. Whether you like TouchWiz’s kitchen-sink approach or Sense’s elegant streamlining is a matter of personal choice, but Google’s slogan for Android is “be together, not the same” and it seemingly doesn’t apply to Wear.
What can we do? There’s something remarkably odd in every Wear watch spec sheet, and that is the ludicrous amount of storage they come with. Take the case of my Gear Live: As of now it has 2.7gb of available storage, out of 2.9 total. I mostly keep it stock, but a quick look will reveal that the core of the watch doesn’t really take up room at all. The Android System itself weighs just 15MB, the Android Wear essentials are 12MB, and the Google Play Services the phone relies on so heavily suck up 52MB. There’s quite a bit of essential services in there too, but the watch still barely breaks 200MB of storage.
ROM’s can be heavy on Wear. The Gohma package zip, for example, weighs over 310MB, albeit there’s some additions as many phone Android AOSP-based ROMs would naturally feature. The ROM is still mostly stock and features optimizations and improvements. This being said, considering the amount of storage most people will never fill (unless you are crazy about storing music on your watch, or have every Wear app in existence), some possibilities may arise.
One that we’ve debated within our team is the possibility of allowing third parties to modify the Android Wear platform for their devices, but at the same time, enforce a “switch” button that would always be present. Such a switch button could allow the user to switch to a “stock Wear” ROM that would function in the same way the natural course of Wear updates dictate, and get further straight-from-Google upgrades as well. This would allow for both courses of Android to coexist, albeit not without some difficulties. However, as long as Google sticks to their own Wear vision and makes sure such a switch is accessible on Wear forks, as well as have the platform inform every user of this in an intelligible way, the risks would be minimized.
Other options would include dual-booting, as the storage offered and possible improvements on this front would allow for this as well. While Android phones feature heavier OS’s in relation to their usual storage options, the standard in Wear is already big enough to allow for such an option in the near future. This wouldn’t come without its compromises, risks and downsides, however, but a tech giant such as Google could address these with enough time, research and development. Another problem would be further fragmentation and brand diminishing for Wear, as the forks could take away much of the consumer perception as they do on Android phones, and give them a wrong idea of what Android stands for and what Google really chooses to emphasize upon with it.
Analysts, journalists, enthusiasts, XDA and even casual users all expected greatness out of Google’s wrist droid, but so far the hype seems to have dried out due to stagnant presence, disappointing adoption and lack of the particular innovation that the market craves. The latter bit is perhaps the most important, as no matter how good a smartwatch looks, practicality is still king for smartwatches. While the open vs. closed debate has an astounding majority opting for the former for smartphone Android, Wear owners are still partially undecided. The taste of fast updates regardless of OEM is something hard to give up, and exclusive features could also offset the market, fragment it and give unfair advantages to certain OEMs. At the same time, the efforts of OEMs applied on software could accelerate the evolution Wear as they did with Android. Many seem to think this is a matter of dichotomy. However, as difficult as it can be, alternatives exist to allow for both options for consumers, developers and OEMs. Like all good advances in life and tech, it just takes a little more time and thought. So, we know that it isn’t easy, and we know there could be complications. But ultimately the question is this: por que no los dos?
Do you think there are alternatives to the dichotomy of open & closed on Wear? Let us know below!