Google officially announced and released the Android Wear platform a little over two years ago at the June 2014 Google I/O developer conference. Three smartwatches were also unveiled to be made by LG, Samsung and Motorola, although the Motorola Moto 360 was not available until later in the year. These devices differed in their design as the LG and Samsung devices used a square watch face whereas the Motorola watch used a round watch face. It was the delayed, round-faced Motorola Moto 360 that caught the most attention, perhaps because it looks more like a real watch rather than a clunky smartwatch. The devices also differed under the skin as the LG and Samsung devices were based on Qualcomm silicon and Motorola used an older Texas Instruments chipset. Android Wear was originally built upon Android 4.4 KitKat and has since been updated and is now based upon Android 6.0 Marshmallow. At the 2016 Google I/O conference, the company announced that the next version of Android Wear is bumping the version number up to 2.0 (currently, Android Wear is version 1.4).
We have seen improvements in the Android Wear platform to date but Google clearly believes that current versions of the smartwatch operating system are increasingly polished versions of the first generation. Going back to Android’s early consumer days, we saw something like this: first generation Android devices were rough around the edges and Android 1.5, then 1.6, were polished versions of the original software. Things changed in January 2010 with the release of HTC and Google’s Nexus One smartphone, a close cousin of the HTC Desire. The Nexus One was released with Android 2.1 Eclair and this particular update to Android introduced a number of benefits to customers, such as new speech-to-text and voice navigation functionality. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Android since January 2010 but the Nexus devices have helped shape things going forward. And now we are seeing reports that Google is preparing Nexus Android Wear devices. Why are the reasons for this and what might the implications be?
Google have steered the Android Wear platform along a different course to the Android smartphone platform that we see on larger devices. With Android Wear, Google has maintained a tight control over how the operating system operates. It’s tightly integrated with Google’s services and the interface is controlled – with at least Huawei publicly criticizing Google for not giving them any flexibility with the interface. The Android on our smartphones has had far fewer restrictions on the interface and overlay that manufacturers are able to design. As such, the Nexus devices with their “stock” (really “as Google imagined it”) user interface stand out but for the Android Wear platform, all devices work the same way. A Nexus Android Wear device will not offer a different stock user interface as they all already use this. We can speculate as to why Google insisted that manufacturers do not change the Android Wear interface but the likely rationale includes keeping the platform a consistent performer between models (important with the lightweight hardware specification of Android Wear devices) and ensuring compatibility between the smartwatch and Android 4.3 and higher on the smartphone driving it. It also helps Google ensure manufacturers keep the platform updated with new releases: keeping devices updated is important and with Android Wear, it’s likely to be even more important.
Going back to the implications of Android Wear 2.0. Google have listened to users of the first generation Android Wear platform and are making a raft of changes to the user interface and platform. These include removing some of the restrictions necessary when the smartwatch is almost entirely dependent on the connected smartphone: with Android Wear 2.0, devices will be able to run standalone applications on the device. Another important change is the introduction of Google Assistant, which is shaping up to be a turbocharged and refined version of Google Now. Google Now is already a very powerful feature and when it gets it right, it can provide very useful information at precisely the right time. It has been revised, refined, streamlined and improved following the introduction of the feature with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean back in 2012. Whereas Google Now was designed and built before Android Wear 1.x was produced, Google Assistant is being engineered to work with Android Wear 2.0 right from the start.
To date, there would appear to be no software advantage associated with picking a Nexus Android Wear device over a manufacturer’s Android Wear device, given Google’s tight restrictions on the platform. Perhaps Google are producing their own Nexus smartwatches in order to steer manufacturers with the hardware of the platform? Many smartwatches to date have been based around a “detuned” Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset paired up with 512 MB of RAM. Qualcomm – and other manufacturers – have released and continue to work on new chipsets optimised for wearable technology. It’s possible that Google will use newer, more efficient chipsets with the Nexus Android Wear devices as a part of their war on battery life. Alternatively, Google could be building in new sensors into the Nexus smartwatches in order to cooperate with Google Assistant and as such is paving the way for other manufacturers to use the same technology.
It is also possible that Google are working on releasing Nexus-branded smartwatches in order to extend the appeal of the brand and ultimately the platform. This could simply be a vote of confidence in the platform designed to show other manufacturers that Google believes in Android Wear and is prepared to put its money into building the devices.