Can Google's new watches save Android Wear?

Google is set to release a pair of smartwatches alongside next month's release of Android Wear 2.0, and there's a lot riding on them.

Android Watches

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Quick question: What’s on your wrist? I’m willing to bet you didn’t say “an Android Wear watch.” What was supposed to be the year of wearables turned into repeated delays and mounting frustrations, as Android Wear 2.0 missed its launch date and manufacturers bailed on anticipated releases.

To put it bluntly, Android Wear is in sad shape. But there is hope for salvation. In February, Android Wear 2.0 will finally drop, bringing a host of improvements such as standalone apps, easier typing, and on-watch purchasing to a reasonably long list of compatible models. But even with a lengthy list of features, it might not be enough. Google is expected to punctuate the OS release with a couple of its own watches, but they need to be more than just “good.” They need to be special. Otherwise, Android Wear may join Orkut, Reader, and Wave in the dustbin of failed Google initiatives. Here’s what Google needs to do to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Who, what, and wear

A few days before Christmas, Google decided to do a bit of much-needed damage control. While the company had already announced that Android Wear 2.0 would be delayed until 2017, there was a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding the future of the platform.

Google put all that to rest by unveiling plans to release a watch of its own. Suddenly for the first time in more than a year there was something solid to look forward to, and after Google’s hot streak of products in the Pixel, Google Home, and Google WiFi, a watch seems like the perfect piece to bring it all together.

huawei watch 01 Greenbot

Huawei was one of the companies that delayed plans for an Android Wear Watch in 2016.

A watch co-developed by Google could be the device that finally sets the tone and provides a firm direction for Android Wear, delivering a device that is built around the OS, not the other way around. Take Apple Watch as an example. With watchOS 3, Apple dramatically changed the way the OS works with its hardware. It’s not so much that it added extra features or more functionality, but it made the experience more fluid by rethinking how how you interact with the watch, with a focus on keeping everything quick and seamless. And that’s something sorely missing from current Android Wear models.

Smart innovation

Android Wear is a different animal than Android. While Android phone makers have always had plenty of rules to follow, for the most part they’re free to put their own stamp on the interface, and as such, every Android handset looks and acts a little differently. That’s not the case with Android Wear. Whether you’re using a Moto 360 or a Nixon Mission, you’re getting the same Android Wear interface, much like it is with the various models of Apple Watch. Watch makers can include custom watch faces and apps, but they can't mess with the underlying OS or its design.

michael kors access close up face Jon Phillips

Android Wear watches may all run the same OS, but no two look alike.

But even with the same software as its peers, Google can still distinguish its watch greatly from the pack. While there have been precious few Android Wear releases over the past year, none of them have delivered the kind of standout features we thought they would have by this point. Some have built-in GPS, others have LTE, they all have disappointing battery life. A Google watch needs to deliver a complete package of hardware features that allow it to be a true replacement for your phone.

One of the standout features of Apple Watch Series 2 is its waterproofing. Not only can you get it wet, you can take it for a swim and track your laps, thanks to a clever speaker system that expels any water that gets into the speaker. It’s this kind of ingenuity that’s needed in Google’s watch. Like, if it could continually track our movements like it does steps and record little bits of exercise throughout the day without you having to remember to start a full workout session, it could be a fitness game-changer. 

Keep it simple

No matter if they’re smart or dumb, there are certain expectations we have when we strap on a watch, and very few of the Android Wear models out there seem to understand what they are. As Samsung quickly learned after its first Galaxy Gear watch, it’s not about cramming as many features as possible. Aside from telling time and basic fitness tracking, a successful smartwatch should do two main things: Keep you apprised of what’s happening on your phone and help you communicate with the people in your life.

moto 360 2nd gen 01 Jason Cross

The Google Watch will likely be circular, but it probably won’t have a flat tire like the Moto 360.

And with control over the whole system, Google is in a unique position to nail both⏤and look good doing it. Where Samsung and Apple have done their iterating in public with several hardware releases, Google has presumably taken the time to learn what people want from a smartwatch, and its first entry should instantly be one of the best in the market. It should combine a sleek, classic design with simple features that perfectly blend with the OS.

Navigation has been a particular sore spot with Android Wear watches, and while Android Wear 2.0 improves things a bit with an app launcher built for round faces, it’s still missing a signature element like the Gear S3’s rotating bezel or Apple Watch’s Digital Crown. Rumor has it that Google is building in a crown to aid with navigation, and if so, the implementation needs to be clear and intuitive, so other manufacturers can follow suit.

Even if it won’t bear the Pixel name, Google’s watch ought to be a Pixel for the wrist: clean, simple, and elegant. It should showcase the best of Google, while leaving everything else behind in the name of performance and ease of use. We’ve already seen the major features of Android Wear 2.0, but Google’s watch needs to intuitively blend them into the physical components of the watch: Make it easy to use Android Pay. Let us quickly navigate apps. And perhaps most importantly, give Assistant a central role.

Talk to the wrist

We already know that Assistant will be a major component of Android Wear 2.0, but much like Apple and Siri, Google is looking to make its digital helper synonymous with its own devices. As we’ve seen with the Pixel phone and Google Home, Assistant is much more than a way to set alarms and timers. Google wants it to become as natural to use as typing into a search field, and a watch would be a perfect extension of that strategy: On the watch, like the Home speaker, your voice is the input mechanism.

Samsung Gear s3 Michael Simon

Sasmung’s S Voice digital assistant on the Gear S3 doesn’t add much to the experience, but Assistant would.

In many ways, a watch is the perfect location for a digital assistant, but no one’s gotten it right yet. Apple relies far to much on a nearby iPhone for Siri to be of much use, and Samsung’s S Voice isn’t quite up to speed. But Google Assistant could be the first piece of AI to deliver an experience that functions as the centerpiece of the watch.

Assistant’s conversational actions offer a unique opportunity for voice commands, one that goes far beyond the basic ones offered with Google Now on current Android Wear devices: You could check for nearby restaurants and make dinner reservations for one of the options, or summon an Uber and get notified of its arrival, all without needing to open an app or even touch the screen.

Most of the time you wouldn’t even need to leave the watch face. While wearable OSes began with a heavy app presence, the focus has begun to shift to making services can be useful in an integrated capacity. If Assistant on the Google watch can talk to apps and deliver information conversationally like it does with Pixel and Home, it could become the first wearable that makes voice input a truly indispensable part of the experience.

Pixel push

While Google might be tamping down expectations for its new watch by announcing it won’t carry the prestigious Pixel name, there’s no denying what it brings to the table. Watches aren’t sold like phones, so carrier deals are incidental here. Still, Google needs to get it out there. It should be sold at big box stores like Best Buy, as well as at as many carrier stores as possible as a potential accessory for those buying a new Android phone. Online sales alone won't be good enough to really make the general public aware of it.

And it will need a decent marketing push. Smartwatches aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as phones, so people need to be told why they need one. Apple has done a great job with marketing Apple Watch’s niche features to buyers, but it’s been a while since Android Wear had any kind of advertising presence. Google rolled out an impressive campaign alongside its Pixel phone and it would be nice to see something similar with its watch and Android Wear as a whole. An ad built around the back-and-forth nature of Google Assistant instantly comes to mind, showing how someone can quickly plan a forgotten date night on their commute home by clearing out their schedule, making dinner plans, and buying show tickets just by talking to their watch.

Android wearables might not have a lot of momentum right now, but that could all change in a few weeks. Android Wear doesn’t have to end up in Google’s graveyard of failed projects. Releasing its own watch is certainly a step in the right direction, but Google needs to send the same message with its watch as it did with the Pixel: This is how it should be done.

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