Android Wear, the modified version of Android designed for wearable smartwatches, was first showcased over two years ago. The original Android Wear platform was based on Android 4.4 KitKat and has since been updated to versions running on Android 5.0, 5.1 and now 6.0 Marshmallow – but all using Android Wear 1.x versions. At the Google I/O developer conference today, Google showcased Android Wear 2.0, which represents a significant upgrade. A developer preview of Android Wear will be available at the I/O conference but the full release version is not due out until the fall.
David Singleton, Vice President of Engineering for Android Wear at Google, explained that the team took a look at how customers were using the first versions of Android Wear and concentrated on improving the features most used. In his words, Android Wear 2.0 is a "holistic pass across the design of the whole system." In other words, Google redesigned Android Wear. Key improvements include more glanceable information, support for keyboards, handwriting and smart replies, plus enhanced fitness and activity monitoring functionality. The user interface has also been given a spruce up and looks closer to the Material Design style we see on the smartphone and tablet platforms.
Considering the interface, Google have adjusted the default arrangement on the home screen. The navigation drawer is at the top of the screen and notifications are at the bottom – with key information residing in the centre of the screen. Google have darkened the user interface but are using primary colors to highlight notifications. Watch faces will benefit from the new Complications API, designed to help watch face developers pull in data from other applications to present on the home screen. Currently, developers must write their own ways to integrate data from other applications and show it on the home screen. The Complications API will include the ability to use images from cloud storage services such as Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive.
It's the improvements to messaging that are most interesting. Google have based their improvements on the fact that many people interacted with their smartwatches' message functions, so the team have concentrated on improvements to this part of the device. A key change is when the watch notifies you of an incoming message, it can put this message as a full screen notification if you immediately look at the notification. If the wearer does not, the avatar will appear in the notifications areas of the watch face the next time it is looked at. When it comes to responding to messages, the team have built three new features here in addition to using voice or drawing emojis. The first is using smart replies, which work in a similar way to Inbox by Gmail. The software will use machine learning to display the three most likely replies to an incoming message. The second is support for keyboards, and it remains to be seen how well these will work on such a small screen. Google are working on a keyboard but will open the platform up for third party keyboards too, which again will benefit from machine learning technologies. The third new feature is handwriting recognition, based on the smartphone and tablet handwriting recognition technology.
Google's changes to the fitness and activity monitoring services available on wearable devices take advantage of how people want their smartwatch to be their coach rather than simply report progress updates. Android Wear has been engineered to have a much better understanding of what the wearer is doing at the time, thanks to a new API, "Fit Platform Activity Recognition." This API can use activity recognition to launch a predetermined application. This should help remind customers use their smartwatch to track their activity more often!
There is another structural change with Android Wear 2.0: applications will be able to directly access the network without using the smartphone. This has opened up the ability to install applications directly onto the device and allow them to do their own thing. Whilst this is a useful function for everybody, it is more important for iPhone customers with an Android Wear smartwatch, as this will open up full functionality for Apple customers. Currently, Android Wear offers something of a cut down feature set with the iPhone.
Android Wear 2.0 looks like it is bringing a wide ranging set of improvements and changes. Other than noting the software will arrive in the fall, there's no word on what devices will be updated for the new platform or if Google will change the minimum hardware requirements.