During the opening keynote address at Google I/O on Thursday, Google provided an update on its wearable platform, Android Wear. The firm is positioning Android Wear alongside other Android-based technologies as part of its strategy of going “beyond mobile for a multi-screen world.”
The search giant introduced Android Wear in early 2014, and announced that a variety of partners would create unique devices in various shapes and form factors. This contrasts with Android, where Google started with a single phone, Google SVP Sundar Pichai said this week, but now serves 500 OEMs, 500 carriers, and over 4,000 devices. So how is Android Wear doing about 15 months in?
Pichai said that Google started in 2014 with two Android Wear models, and that today they were up to “over seven models,” which is a curious turn of phrase. (So … eight?) “And there are many more to come,” he said.
More important than the device lineup, I guess, is the software. And here, as you might expect if you follow Google at all, there has been dramatic change.
“We love watches,” Director of Android Wear David Singleton said, opening the Android Wear segment of this week’s Google I/O keynote. “They’ve always been this mix of beauty and technology, and from the very beginning, they’ve inspired artists and engineers to come together and create.”
But cutting through the marketing, here’s what Singleton—and Google—really said about Android Wear this week.
It’s about choice of hardware. Using the same strategy it uses with Android handsets, Google is relying on its partner ecosystem to get Android Wear devices out into the world. “The result is choice,” Singleton said. And fair enough. But I’m a bit surprised we don’t see a Nexus-branded Android Wear device, but that could because some of the existing devices are already quite elegant.
It’s about choice of software. There are no over 1,500 Android Wear watch faces, Singleton said, letting anyone express their style.
It’s about truly useful wearable apps. Some of the biggest changes that Google has made to Android Wear over the past year have enabled it and third party developers to great “truly useful wearable apps.” There have been four major Android Wear releases, adding features like GPS support, offline music, deep sleep mode, always-on apps, and more. And many of the updates are related to helping an Android Wear watch work independently with no nearby phone required. Take that, Apple Watch.
Android Wear is continuing to evolve in 2015. At this week’s show, Singleton said that the new changes coming to Android Wear are inspired by the simple act of checking the time: you look at your wrist, get the information you need, and make a decision. “It’s glanceable, actionable, and effortless,” he said. “And that’s the cornerstone of all the interactions in Android Wear.” And the latest release of Android Wear, which is rolling out over the next few weeks, is bringing this approach to even more parts of the system. The following several points are examples of these changes.
Always on apps. Android Wear watches include always-on screens, so you can see the time all the time, and there’s no need to perform some physical action to wake up the screen (as is the case with Apple Watch or Microsoft Band). In the new release, this capability is coming to apps, too, so you can always see useful information without killing the battery. You might choose to keep a Google Keep-based shopping list on-screen while shopping, he explained, using a low-power, black and white display mode. Or you can keep Google Maps on-screen, though it’s not clear what that is doing to preserve battery.
Wrist gestures. The latest Android Wear release also supports new wrist gestures, which I think we can all agree lends itself to some obvious jokes. (What’s the gesture for telling Google that this feature is ridiculous, for example?) You can scroll up and down, for example, by flicking your wrist in the correct direction. This is useful when your hands are full and you can’t touch the screen with your other hand.
Emoji recognizer. Android Wear will also let you draw emoji characters on the watch face with the latest release. The software will recognize your child-like scribble and provide you with emoji choices that roughly match it.
Launcher. The Android Wear release also includes a new launcher, which looks particularly delightful to me now that I’ve used Apple Watch. (More on that over the weekend.) It looks super-simple and obvious.
Support for multiple sensors. In a bit that seem lifted right out of the Microsoft Band specifications, Singleton noted that Android Wear can support whatever array of sensors hardware makers decide to include with their devices. And it does so right on the watch, not remotely on the phone. (Cough, Apple Watch.)
New apps are on the way. In addition to the new platform capabilities, Singleton also showed off some new Android Wear apps that are launching in the near future. These include Foresquare, which uses geofencing for restaurant recommendations, and Uber, which now supports Google Now-based voice control. (Google Now is being extended with third party app support in Android M.)
“Today we are happy to announce that there are already more than 4,000 apps built specifically for Android Wear,” Singleton said, in yet another stab at Apple and its own late-to-market Watch. “That’s thousands of apps that do way more than just tell the time … Ultimately, Android Wear is about choice.” Choice for developers. Choice for hardware makers. And choice for consumers.
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