In a nondescript conference room at Google’s headquarters a few weeks ago, I paired my iPhone to a smartwatch running Android for the first time. I was there to ask Jeff Chang, the lead product manager for Wear, how he’d managed to get Android watches working with iOS and how much they could do with an iPhone. Then my first notification came in on my newly paired Huawei Watch and my carefully laid plans evaporated.
“Um. Did something just happen with Sundar Pichai?” I asked. “Wait, what?” was the response. Oh, you know, he’s your new CEO now. Shall we go on with the interview?
That’s how it goes with smartwatches. They’re meant to keep you from having to pull your phone out of your pocket. You’re supposed to glance at the notifications and smile inwardly, knowing that you can ignore that ping and focus on who you’re talking to. At their best, they do exactly that. At their worst, they derail a conversation.
They’re also still nascent. Very few people have had to bother grappling with the idea of notifications and computers on their wrists, because not all that many people are buying smartwatches. There’s a real sense that everybody’s waiting to see how things shake out, and I don’t blame them. Smartwatches aren’t really ready for everybody yet, not the way that smartphones are. But the smartphone comparison is apt: nothing drove innovation in that space faster than healthy competition between Apple and Google. If competition is what it takes to get smartwatches ready for the mainstream, even Apple Watch users should be glad about Android Wear coming to the iPhone.
That’s right: beginning today, a select set of Android Wear smartwatches (and all future watches) will work with the iPhone. The app should be rolling out worldwide soon. It’s been a long time coming — and it means that Google will be challenging the Apple Watch on its home turf. Those Android Wear watches will be both cheaper and more varied than the Apple Watch — just like Android itself.
There’s an important caveat, though: when paired to an iPhone, Android Wear watches can’t do as much as the Apple Watch. Nor can they do as much as they can when paired to an Android phone. Right now, only three watches officially support the iPhone, two of which aren’t even available for purchase yet: the Huawei Watch, the Asus ZenWatch 2, and the LG Watch Urbane. Chang says that Google isn’t supporting older watches because it wants them to work right away, without software updates. "In order to guarantee a good experience, where out of the box it will work immediately and you don't have to do any fancy footwork, that's why it has to be the newer watches," he says. But I suspect that the Android community will find ways around that limitation for older watches in relatively short order.
Assuming you have a compatible watch, the set-up process with Android Wear on an iPhone is easy. Install the Android Wear app, pair the watch to the phone, and tap through some screens to set up some basic preferences. After that, you’re basically done — though there are some deeper watch settings you can dig into.
Let’s just run down the feature set, though be warned that there are funny little details to know about with each of these bullet points.
- Your notifications from the iPhone are mirrored on Android Wear.
- You get Google Now cards on the watch.
- There are a bunch of different watch faces — including select third-party watch faces — that you can install and use.
- There are a few native apps on the watch you can tap into, like Weather or a clever Translate app.
- Voice search works, including various reminders that you might want to send to Google Now.
- You can do fitness tracking on the watch with Google Fit.
- You can get rich notifications from a small set of Google apps, such as Calendar and Gmail.
That’s quite a lot, actually, and much more than I expected Google to pull off. The problem is that there are restrictions in iOS that prevent certain things from working. It’s easy (and partially true) to rail against the locked-down nature of the iPhone, but in our conversations, everybody at Google demurred from wishing they could do more. Instead, Google just worked with the tools that Apple makes available over Bluetooth — and they turn out to be quite powerful. Chang says that "Basically, like any other iOS developer, we work with Apple to make sure we understand and abide by their guidelines, what the policies for the apps are. That's what we're doing, and we'll continue to do that as we make updates to the app in the future."
And actually, there is apparently one restriction that Apple has backed off on: allowing apps to refer to Android in the first place. In the past, the powers-that-be in Apple’s App Store have rejected apps merely for noting they also exist on Android and even for declaring they support the Pebble smartwatch. How and why Android Wear’s app became exempt from those restrictions is another question Google declined to answer.
Android Wear does more (and less) than you'd expect
Apple also doesn’t allow competing app stores on the iPhone, nor is it likely that third-party app makers will be able to easily bake in more advanced support for Android Wear. That means that Google doesn’t (at least for now) offer third-party watch apps for iPhone users. It also means that the selection of third-party watch faces you can get are "curated" by Google and probably won’t offer the same advanced features you can get when you use Android Wear with an Android phone.
Even with all those limitations, Google has managed to make Android Wear feel very nearly feature-complete, at least by the standards of what most people use smartwatches for. Getting those ambient Google Now notifications is great, and I was weirdly pleased to be able to swipe away notifications on the watch and know the same was happening on the iPhone. If only Apple would make swipe-to-dismiss as easy on its phone. Like the Pebble, Android Wear only receives the notifications that you have set to appear on your lock screen.
Google’s curated set of third-party watch faces probably has enough choices that you’ll find something you’ll like. Unfortunately, since it can’t do full-fledged third-party apps, many of the best Android Wear watch faces aren’t going to be available. But there are some good ones in there, including a pack from ustwo that I really like.
Everything on Android Wear works thanks to the Android Wear app on the iPhone — you don’t need to install Google Search or any other Google apps to use it. Voice search on the watch works really well, though if you tap the button that opens your results on the phone, you run into a weird situation. Since it has to work with the Android Wear app, you end up in an in-app browser inside that app. It’s not terrible, just strange.
By speaking to your watch, you can set Google Now reminders, open the Weather app, set timers, and more. All of it is as good or better than Siri. You can also use the watch to control your music, but you can’t search for a specific song in Apple Music the way that Siri can.
Voice search is accurate but limited
The inability to communicate with other apps extends to other kinds of notifications, too. The most annoying is that you can’t reply to any incoming texts from your watch. You can reply to emails from Gmail, but everything else just shows you the incoming message. You have to pull out your phone even just to reply with a quick "Okay."
But Android Wear does manage to offer some advanced features with Google apps. If you use Google Calendar or Gmail, you’ll get more detailed notifications than you would with the default apps from Apple. And Google cleverly auto-blocks notifications from some duplicate apps when you set them up. In fact, you can swipe on any notification on your watch to get to "block app," which is a scary term for a nice feature: it stops notifications from that app from hitting your watch. Sorry, Periscope (not really).
For Chang and for Google, all these nuts-and-bolts feature comparisons are beside the point. He feels that Google has nailed the basics: notifications, voice search, and Google Now cards. Based on my brief time with the watch, those all work and work really well. For the vast majority of consumers, the basics are going to be completely new. Rather than run down a checklist of features, Google hopes that consumers will be making their smartwatch decision based on other metrics. Namely, style and price.
There are going to be probably half a dozen different Android Wear watches that will work with iPhones by the end of the year — if not more. Each of them looks different and, Google hopes, may appeal more to your personal style then the rounded capsule design of the Apple Watch. "Our vision is a lot of diversity of hardware choices regardless of what phone you use," Chang says. "You'll be able to get the watch you want." We’ve already seen a mix of round and square watches, most of which can also be further customized with off-the-shelf bands.
More importantly, you’ll likely be able to get a smartwatch for significantly less than the $349 asking price for the base model Apple Watch. We don’t yet know the prices for the forthcoming Huawei Watch, new Moto 360, or any of the other Android Wear watches due to arrive soon. But there’s going to be competition between those manufacturers, and that’ll drive the price down. Many Android Wear watches currently sell for as low as $149.
Asking somebody who’s not even sure that they want a watch — much less a smart one — to lay down upwards of $400 on a nascent platform is tough. Asking them to give it a shot for less than half that price is a different story. It’s a story Google will no doubt be telling constantly over the course of the holiday shopping season.