ASUS ZenWatch-03

AH Primetime: Ten Pragmatic Ways Google Could Improve Android Wear

February 24, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Android Wear hasn’t been with us for a year yet and I’m already sitting down to write an article about how to improve the platform. I’m sure that Google have many planned improvements to Android Wear, some in the short term, some in the medium term and some a couple of years out. The smartwatch market is still in immature and young and I believe we’ll see significant changes in the months and years to come.

Before I start, let me take a paragraph to explain where the smartwatch market currently is heading. Currently, most smartwatches sold into the market are accessory devices, that is, they rely on a smartphone (or tablet) for their data connection to the outside world. We’ve seen a few devices launching that have an independent data connection but these are currently in the minority. The industry expects this to change but for this to happen, we need a viable “Internet of Things” network infrastructure so that our devices can cooperate together or independently, rather than being reliant on a symbiotic relationship. That will likely mean equipping Android Wear devices with SIM cards and WiFi radios, which under current business models likely means increasing the cost of the smartwatch to the customer (as somebody has to pay for that Internet connection). With a different business model, a customer would buy a line and be able to seamlessly use multiple devices on this connection – if the smartwatch can handle calling, then let the customer do so.

There are signs that this could happen quickly. We may see the trend for ever larger smartphones continue and our smartwatches to shrink, as we can then decide to take one or both with us when we are out of the house and want to remain connected. I would like to also say that if Google were to develop their own carrier, this is the sort of innovation I would hope to see them offering customers.

Let’s get back to the ten ways that Android Wear might be improved and I am going to start with improving independent functionality. Currently, Android Wear must rely on a device running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean or later. It also needs the Android Wear application installing onto the host device. We’ve seen some Android Wear smartwatches launched with additional radios – the Sony Smartwatch 3, for example, has a WiFi radio but Android Wear cannot use it. Let’s see this functionality enabled, and whilst we’re at it, let’s provide support for SIM cards and mobile data connections.

Once our Android Wear devices have independent Internet connections, they need to be able to operate independently if we so wish. This means I won’t have to bring along my large smartphone wherever I go, but if I do the devices will cooperate together to give me the best experience.

Some people are lucky in having a number of Android devices plus a Chromebook that they use on a regular basis. Let’s make Android Wear aware of all those other Android devices apart from the smartwatch. There are occasions when it would be great to have Android Wear device pass through a notification to a device other than the smartphone.

My fourth improvement is to change how the Android Wear application works on the Android smartphone or tablet. I’d like to see this as part of the device or Google Play Service settings rather than a standalone application. If we see the development the industry expect to see in the wearable and Internet of Things sectors, this is a logical change to how we manage our Android Wear device(s).

Google have to carefully manage the user interface, to avoid over complicating matters on what is a small screen, but also make the device powerful and sophisticated. The combination of a hardware button, a touchscreen and voice control works and at this juncture, I don’t see a way that this can be substantially improved. I’ll be watching Pebble’s announcement as they do appear to have some ideas! Currently, Google’s voice control is reliant on a connection to the Internet. There are times when my smartphone does not have an Internet connection (because I haven’t used it for some time); this disables much of the Android Wear’s functionality. I would like to see Google’s voice control enabled when offline. I would like the smartwatch to be able to wake up the smartphone connection – but I accept that this is the responsibility of the OEM (HTC in this case).

I use the Motorola Moto 360 and I picked this Android Wear device for two reasons. One is that it’s round and looks like a watch, rather than like a smartwatch. Secondly, it has wireless Qi charging. I have nothing against plugging in a charger when it’s a universal standard and isn’t awkward or fiddly, which is exactly where most Android Wear devices fall over. Some have a MicroUSB port but it’s hidden under a rubber flap. Others require the device to be carefully positioned onto a cradle or have a unique charger adapter. I like how Google gives manufacturers freedom to design their devices how they see fit, but let’s see a universal charger standard. Please let it be Qi wireless charging, but if it isn’t, let’s use MicroUSB (if we see Android Wear devices becoming voice-capable, this change will likely be enforced by authorities anyway).

Related to how we recharge the Android Wear devices is how frequently we recharge them. A combination of a small touchscreen, small chassis and small batteries means we’re seeing small battery life from our devices. Whilst I am happy with two days to a charge, because it means I can rotate between devices on the one Qi charger, I would be happier with four days. A week. Two weeks. This probably means a technological shift but I’ve seen a useful improvement in my Moto 360’s battery life through the various software updates; using E Ink for the display is one idea.

The eighth improvement is to open up Android Wear to other platforms and operating systems. I’m quite sure Google will do this, because they’re in the data business first and foremost and getting more users on the platform is the best way to improve the data collated. Getting iOS onboard is a must, but let’s not exclude the other platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Phone being the next two significant ones, but there are others too). We’ve already seen a hack to get Android Wear working with the iPhone.

My ninth improvement is a contentious one, but how about opening up the Wear platform for applications to run on the smartwatch? This is perhaps a necessity if we’re going to be able to use our Android Wear devices independently to our smartphone. The danger of opening up the platform is that not all developers are of the same quality and a poorly written application can give a user a bad experience. We’ve already seen this with some watchfaces that use a lot of battery power, giving the user a bad experience (check out the source cited for this article as a great example).

My final entry on the wish list is for Android Wear devices to have onboard NFC and wireless payment technology, even if I have reservations about using Bluetooth to transfer payment data to and from the smartwatch. I think I would be happy with QR codes showing on the screen as an interim solution, which is how Pebble is planning on developing a wristwatch payment system.

There we have it. Ten ideas, some more fanciful than others, of how Google can improve Android Wear. As a product, Wear is very much in its infancy; I suspect that Google have low expectations from the technology until it gathers traction, perhaps hoping to follow in the Apple Watch’s wake? Over to our readers: do you use Android Wear? What’s your favorite feature and what do you dislike the most? Let us know in the comments below.