Author(s): George Jijiashvili
At its annual I/O developer conference last week, Google announced the Android Wear 2.0 update. The beta version for developers has now been released and the consumer version is expected at the end of 2016.
Although it's certainly the "most significant Android Wear update" so far, it's not the ground-breaking revamp many were hoping for. Nevertheless, I believe it still brings plenty of incremental and necessary updates to the platform.
Perhaps the biggest change is that apps will be able to work stand-alone, running on a smartwatch without the need for a tethered phone to do all the heavy lifting. In addition to faster performance, this update means smartwatches will be able to connect directly to the Internet via Wi-Fi, built-in LTE connection or, most importantly, by proxy over Bluetooth. Users will also be able to install apps from the Play store directly on the smartwatch. These changes will allow iPhone users to enjoy more features and apps on their Android Wear smartwatch.
When Apple released its Watch OS 2 at the end of 2015, it introduced support for native apps, allowing them to run on the Apple Watch. It's clear that Apple and Google have identified the need for watches to be less reliant on phones. I believe this stems from the desire to eliminate the perception that smartwatches only duplicate smartphone functions, and to provide additional utility on top of the smartphone user experience.
Watch faces will now display information from any app — a feature similar to the so-called "complications" on the Apple Watch. The most significant aspect of this is that the watch will give users more useful, at-a-glance information, thus reducing the amount of time they spend interacting with their smart device. We believe this element was requested by traditional watchmakers wanting more flexibility in watch face designs.
Android Wear 2.0 watch face with step tracking, e-mail and cycling app complications (left), and examples of types of complication (right).
The Android Wear 2.0 update brings important improvements to the user interface. My main complaints about the previous version were that the notification cards constantly hijacked the display, and that it required too much time navigating through seemingly endless menus to get to the most-used apps, features and settings. With the latest update, notifications are less disruptive as users can check them at their convenience by swiping up. Favourite apps can now be accessed from the watch face, while the quick settings (accessed by swiping down) are displayed on a single card, instead of four.
Quick settings screen on Android Wear 1.4 (left) and Android Wear 2.0 (right)
Google also revealed a Smart Reply feature, powered by the company's machine learning and artificial intelligence. It scans incoming messages and offers suggestions for possible replies — a feature the Apple Watch also offers. I've long believed that contextually aware features like this are essential for raising the overall utility of smartwatches.
Google Fit on Android Wear also received a significant revamp. In addition to tracking steps, smartwatches will now offer activity recognition, detecting when the user has started running and also recognizing and logging certain strength-training exercises. It also automatically launches music applications when the user starts exercising. This isn't particularly new or innovative, but it will concern makers of fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone, as they'll see this as another step by Android Wear into their territory. However, CCS Insight believes smartwatches won't dent sales of fitness trackers in the near term, thanks to fitness trackers' clear use, superior fitness-centric features and considerably longer battery life.
Most of the updates in the Android Wear 2.0 were aimed at making smartwatches more appealing to the mass market, but the one that stood out for me was handwriting and qwerty support. Both appeared to work well in the demos, but it looks like a daunting task compared with typing on a smartphone. In my view, these features were added to please the small but devoted groups of Android Wear developers and smartwatch aficionados.
Android Wear is still far from perfect, but it's clear that Google and smartwatch manufacturers remain more dedicated to this category than ever. Some features that I think would make Android Wear smartwatches more appealing are deeper integration of Google's machine learning and artificial intelligence for more-accurate and contextual suggestions; inclusion of NFC for Android Pay; support for multiple physical buttons; and improved battery life.
Although the Android Wear 2.0 didn't introduce anything particularly innovative, it's a necessary iterative update. Google has demonstrated its ability to listen to its device partners and users, and implement changes with the hope that owning and using Android Wear smartwatches will become more appealing.
CCS Insight's wearables research covers smartwatches, fitness trackers, augmented and virtual reality, cameras and more. Our wearables service includes a global market forecast, an extensive database of over 500 wearable devices, regular reports on various market categories and monthly updates on the latest developments in wearables. We also conduct an annual wearable end-user survey. Please click here for more details.