When it comes to accessories, it seems that people can't get enough of them. Whenever we buy a new smartphone we often buy a case or two to change up the look every now and then and of course to protect them. A fancy pair of earphones and perhaps a holder for the car, a second charger and possibly a charging dock are some staple accessories that people buy. Consumers are more than happy to buy these because they're not expensive, and in the case of cables and chargers, they're good for your next device as well (or that is until now, anyway) but what happens when an accessory costs upwards of $250 or so? Then people are less likely to put their money where their mouth is and that's perhaps the reason why smartwatches aren't taking off quite as quickly as people thought they would. That's because, for the majority of smartwatches out there – including those running Android Wear – that's all they are, accessories, and they need to be a lot smarter to get more people putting their money up.
I've been a big fan of the whole smartwatch idea, I got onboard early with a Sony SmartWatch 2 (which was actually a pretty great device at the time), then jumped at the LG G Watch when I could, followed by a Moto 360, a G Watch R and now a Fossil Q Founder. I have worn a smartwatch every day, all day for the past two years or more, and I couldn't be without one. That's not because my watch does something truly "smart" however, it's more just because I wear a watch, I like wearing a watch and well, there's one feature I couldn't live without; notifications.
The notification argument is something you come across a lot online – "Quicker to take your phone out and check!", "Why not just use your phone?!", "My phone tells the time just fine!" etc etc. Problem is that it's not quicker to take my phone out and I couldn't care less how good a job my phone did telling the time. One of my very good friends here in the UK is constantly on his phone, messages from Facebook, SMS messages, eBay notifications and so on keep his phone making noises all of the time. It is infuriating. The idea of a blind SMS beep, telling me I have a message from someone, but I have no idea how urgent it is, who it's from or what it says until I take my phone out and check. I don't want to take my phone out of my pocket, especially when I'm out with friends or whatever, I'd rather see what the message is about and then either deal with it or get on with my day.
Getting notifications on my wrist has genuinely helped me become less stressed. I no longer have to check what that email noise was, I can quickly see it from my wrist, archive something or then get my phone out if I need to. Knowledge is power, and the more I know about a notification, the better. Aside from this magical power to keep better informed without pulling my hair out my Android Wear watch does….well, not much else, really.
I realize that I, personally, am perhaps a minority here as I live in Middle England and it's hardly Silicon Valley over here when it comes to tech. The idea of paying with your phone around these parts is craziness, and whenever I present my watch to the lady behind the counter at Tesco (think Wal-Mart) to scan my loyalty card I get treated like some sort of wizard. The fact is however, that I don't want to explore the extra features my watch can offer me, because there's just not many of them. Aside from replacing a few small barcodes of my keyrings for select chains and coffee shops, choosing music through Spotify and dealing with todo lists via Wunderlist, I just don't see what else my watch can do.
I feel that there's a big problem when talking specifically about Android Wear here and that's that the fitness side of the equation just doesn't add up. We can poke all the fun we want at the Apple Watch for well, being ugly and ostentatious, but the overall design gets a crucial element right. Straps are quick and easy to change, making it easy to wear an Apple Watch for fitness as well as for the day-to-day. The only Android Wear watch that comes close to this is the Sony SmartWatch 3, but then that doesn't come with a heart-rate sensor so not too great for serious fitness. Then there's the Moto 360 Sport, which is a little better, but it's not going to look great with a shirt and tie or whatever. Google Fit doesn't even try that hard, either. It's gotten a lot better, but what does it offer for smartwatch wearers beyond simple run tracking and step counting? Not much.
Apps on Android Wear have certainly come on leaps and bounds since the platform launched. I count Stocard, Spotify, Wunderlist, Coffee and Pocket Casts among my favorites, but have you noticed these are mostly extensions of what my phone does? Aside from Stocard, I don't have a single Android Wear app that is useful in and of itself, which is just depressing. On the flip side though, the watch face selection on Android Wear is fantastic, I just discovered Weareal and love the animations on those, and I find WatchMaker's community fascinating. As someone who want to wear a watch first, gadget second, this selection of watch faces is thoroughly enjoyable and from afar you might not ever know I was even wearing a smartwatch.
Taking a look at Samsung's latest offering, the Gear S2, and it's clear that Samsung wanted to offer something a little more comprehensive right out of the box, and it paid off. While the breadth of Android Wear's catalog isn't available on Samsung's Tizen-powered watch, there are some pretty great apps out there, and let's not forget the potential to pay for things with Samsung Pay in the future. It might not be as fully-featured as an Android Wear watch loaded up with aftermarket apps, but out of the box there's a lot of value available from Samsung.
It seems to me that smartwatches – from the Huawei Watch, the Gear S2 all the way down to the Pebble – have settled on a few key areas; notifications, voice commands, and fitness. The first one they all do very well these days, the middle one is still hit and miss every now and then and the last feature is only really done all that well on the right model. This needs to change. These watches need to do more, and it's clear that everyone has an uphill battle on their hands.
Android Wear has been available for years now, and yet few banking apps do anything with the platform, a handful of airlines around the world have adopted it for boarding passes and few store apps make good use of the platform. This is despite Android Wear being fairly easy to develop for – should you believe Google, at least. Pebble got some big scores on their watch when they were the hottest smartwatch available by forging partnerships with well-known brands, and it's clear that Google haven't done that quite as they should have done with Android Wear.
Courting developers and businesses around the world to add Android Wear support to their Android apps is something Google should definitely be working on, but Android Wear itself needs to get smarter, too. In terms of hardware, not a single Android Wear smartwatch has NFC, making Android Pay essentially useless on smartwatches and why these watches didn't launch with speakers for taking quick calls has flummoxed me for a couple of years now. 2016 is a new year, and Mobile World Congress is just around the corner, so perhaps there is more in store for Android Wear this year, but if Google aren't careful, there's room for someone else – possibly Samsung – to emerge with the best wearable platform available.