We’ve seen a handful of smartwatches launch in the last year, although none of them have sold in huge numbers. However, the idea is starting to gain some traction with a second generation of Samsung watches and a much more attractive Pebble. Now, Google is throwing its hat into the ring with Android Wear.
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This is a typically Google approach to a new market – rather than design its own singular device with narrow compatibility like Samsung, Android Wear is a platform for OEMs to innovate and build wearables using the best features of Android. For this reason, Android Wear might finally get smartwatches right.
Android Wear is still Android, but it’s not just a shrunken-down version of the smartphone operating system like the original Galaxy Gear. Google’s new wearable platform relies on a subset of features that make sense on a smartwatch – Google Now cards are a big part of Wear, as is voice search.
Google is working with OEMs to get devices powered by Android Wear on the market this year, and there’s no single “right” form factor. Just as with Android phones, OEMs are free to experiment with square and round shapes, as well as a variety of hardware features and styles. Yes, round, like almost every normal watch. That alone might convince some folks to give smartwatches a shot.
The demo devices in the Google promo video (below) really drive home how important the aesthetics of a watch are – these are fashion accessories as much as they are smart devices. In fact, Google called out Fossil specifically in the announcement as a company that is working with Android Round, which is exactly what smartwatches need.
One company in particular is all over Android Wear – Motorola. Google hasn’t completed the sale to Lenovo, so it’s no surprise the Moto 360 was announced in tandem with Android Wear. This device looks a lot like the round smartwatch that Google included in its video, though with a slightly more watch-like aesthetic. Rather than tell us what sort of ARM chip is inside the Moto 360 or what the screen resolution is, Motorola stressed that it’s round and pretty. Frankly, that’s probably as important as the specs for a successful wearable.
The look and feel of Android Wear devices will certainly be important, but the hardware is going to come into play before smartwatches become the next big thing. These are still screens on your wrist, which means battery life is going to be a concern. An LCD or AMOLED guzzles power when it’s on, and there’s not much space for a battery. Motorola mentioned the Moto 360 will show your notifications and alerts with a “twist of the wrist,” indicating it’s going to have some sort of movement detection to wake up the display like the Moto X’s Active Display. Pressing a button just to see the time rather defeats the purpose of having a watch on your wrist. OEMs will have to be clever to make these devices last, because no one wants another device that has to struggle to make it through the day.
Developers are invited to sign up for access to the preview Android Wear SDK and begin adapting their apps to take advantage of smaller displays. This is really the genius of Google’s wearable strategy – it’s leveraging the entire Android ecosystem to make smartwatches work. Samsung restricts the Gear mostly to its devices and services, but Google wants everyone to help make Android Wear a useful platform. At the same time, it still ties into advanced Android features like search and location services. Maybe no one really wants a smartwatch, but Google Wear devices will probably have the best shot at convincing them otherwise.
This feels a lot like that era before official Android tablets, back when Samsung fiddled around with the original Galaxy Tab. It ran Android 2.3 scaled up to 7in and was a pretty awful experience. Then Google swept in and offered the tools to standardise Android tablets beginning with Android 3.0. Samsung and everyone else fell into line, and that might be what happens with wearables too. Rolling out your own Android smartwatch without Google’s backing is going to be pointless from here on out. The Moto 360 is out this summer, but Google is also working with LG, Asus, Samsung, and others to make Android Wear devices a reality.