For the past two years, smartwatches have been all over the place. As the relatively new category has developed, we have seen countless ideas on what smartwatches should be and how they should work. Despite some success from the Apple Watch and to a smaller extent, Pebble and Samsung, smartwatches have yet to really catch on in the mainstream, with many critics and users complaining that they are too complicated and too duplicative of the smartphones they already own.
Google has been getting these complaints a much as anyone, and its Android Wear platform has yet to gain the traction of even other smartwatch platforms. Despite being on a lot of different devices from a variety of manufacturers and benefiting from large marketing campaigns from Google, Android Wear has struggled with a difficult-to-use interface, little support from third-party developers, and a general disinterest from the public.
With this week’s announcement of Android Wear 2.0, we can see Google addressing those complaints head on. Instead of trying to extend the platform with countless new features that are easier to just do on a smartphone (except, of course, the ridiculous QWERTY keyboard), Google is focusing on the features that smartwatches already excel at and improving them.
In their current forms, smartwatches are very good at showing glanceable information, providing easy access to notifications, and tracking physical activity. Android Wear 2.0 builds on all of those features, with new information widgets for watch faces, a redesigned and more complete notification system, and smarter fitness tracking that can automatically detect various activities. In addition, Google has cleaned up the interface, provided new guidelines for developers building Android Wear apps, and given Android Wear the ability to work completely standalone from a smartphone.
This is a big step toward making smartwatches more than just an accessory
That last point is very important, as it’s the first step toward making smartwatches more than just an accessory to your phone. With Android Wear 2.0, smartwatches will be able to connect directly to the internet, instead of having to rely on a paired connection to a phone. This connection can be performed over Wi-Fi, cellular, or even by proxy over Bluetooth, so iPhone owners that use Android Wear can get many of the same benefits as Android users. Battery life is always a concern with smartwatches, but Google says that the efficiency improvements that have been made to the Android platform, such as Doze and Doze Light, mean that even with these new connectivity features, battery life is the same as before.
Not only is the connectivity improved, but Android Wear 2.0 also lets you install apps directly to watches, instead of requiring them to be bundled in phone apps. David Singleton, the head of Google’s Android Wear efforts, says that users will be able to browse and install smartwatch apps from the Play Store right on the watch itself. This opens up more options for all Android Wear users, but mostly for iPhone owners, as third-party apps are currently unavailable for Android Wear when it’s used with iOS.
Like many of Google’s products announced this week, Android Wear 2.0 is leveraging the company’s artificial intelligence skills to improve the notification and messaging experience on your wrist. The Smart Reply feature, which first showed up in the Inbox email app last year, provides contextual responses to incoming messages, so communication takes less effort.
Google's intelligence is at work in the on-screen keyboard
But chances are you'll see Google's intelligence at work more often in that silly-looking on-screen keyboard. It has support for tracing, just like you can do on the phone, but Google's emphasizing its ability to predict the words you want to use based on just a couple of letters. The idea is to just peck at one or two letters and rely on prediction to do the rest. That's the only way that such a keyboard could be useful on a small screen on your wrist and Google doesn't really expect you to tap out each letter on the tiny keyboard.
Google is playing a little catch up with the Apple Watch with the new complications API, but it’s allowing for more options than Apple does with its watch faces. Apps can now offer complications that can be plugged into third-party watch faces — not just Google’s own designs — and can show information such as weather, calendar appointments, message previews, and more. Or they can provide quick shortcuts to jump into an app, such as a to-do list, calendar, or fitness app. Though some third-party watch faces already exist with similar functionality, platform-level support allows many more to adopt it, and have it better integrated into the system. Watch face designers can style these complications to fit their aesthetics and themes, and they don’t require them to sign up or pay for partnerships to provide weather or other data.
None of this is to say that Google's new interface is perfected yet. The revised user interface relies heavily on physical "crown" buttons and it’s not clear how it might work on a device that lacks them. It’s also been changed enough that existing Android Wear users will have to go through a learning curve before they are fluent and comfortable with it again.
The big challenge is still convincing people they even need a smartwatch
Still, interface isn't Google's big problem with Wear. It's convincing people that they need a smartwatch in their lives at all. Part of that is improving the core functions of notifications and fitness tracking, but a lot of it is getting developers to create apps that make the smartwatch more useful. The better support on iOS and new standalone features are part and parcel to this: now that users will be able to access apps right from their watches, will there be apps there when they go looking?
But overall, I like Google’s approach here — it’s focused and simplified. Yet at the same time, it strengthened Android Wear’s features to make the platform potentially much better than before. We’ll have to see just how effective those efforts are when it launches to the public later this fall.