The wearable wars are about to begin. We have reported on several iWatch rumors and teased Android Wear’s potential presence at Google I/O. Samsung is on their second generation of watches. Pebble is the little startup that could, taking the crown for “probably the best smartwatch on the market” for the past 12 months. As we approach a formal release of Android Wear-enabled devices, though, it’s a big moment for Google. More precisely, it’s big for Google Now.
What are wearables for?
Before we can understand why the rise of smart…wearables is so important for Google Now, we have to establish what the plausible uses for these devices are. Cell phones revolutionized the way people communicate with relatively little resistance. Sure, there are people worried about the negative effects of being attached to a device all the time, but the utility of the invention has never met much debate.
People used to carry around these things just so they could make and take calls on the go:
And for when we wanted to be contacted but not talk on the phone, we created a whole new device for that:
This is to say that we have always wanted the world at our fingertips and we have continually geared our tech towards that goal. Smartphones today are unbelievably capable and, compared to the aforementioned gadgets, are just as extraordinary for their portability.
What does a smartwatch do? Well, it seems to take the brain of our smartphone and package it into an even more convenient form factor. Given that both Android and iOS reached the public for the first time in 2008, I can predict that many (maybe even you) are wondering if this whole convenience thing is going a little bit overboard.
Everyone in the industry is worried, too. Rumors indicate that Apple is going whole hog, so to speak, in making the iWatch into a health and fitness device. Why? Because phones don’t do this well. A big metal/plastic rectangle just doesn’t work for the gamut of relevant health activities. We had those arm straps, sure, but bigger phones have made those more ridiculous. A phone could never take our pulse well and we handle our phones too much to make them decent pedometers.
Apple has a good plan and it reflects that they know the general reaction to the iWatch will first be, “do I really need this?” Being a hardware company, Apple wants to make the iWatch a special device that will offer value-added features like the aforementioned health ones to make the concept of a smartwatch more palatable to a skeptical public.
Google, on the other hand, is a services company. Google is the web. Putting all their eggs into the “we’ll build a device that has all of these different hardware features” basket is contrary to their vision. This is why we know about Android Wear in advance of its release, the Android variant that Google released to developers to start building apps for future smartwatches. Google wants user experience.
Many people wear what we will soon be calling “dumb watches.” What do you wear them for? Fashion, sometimes, certainly. Still, more likely than not, you wear it so you can easily find out what time it is. Some people rely solely on their smartphones for this, but in more formal settings like the workplace it can appear obnoxious or disrespectful to be constantly taking out and looking at one’s phone. A glare at one’s watch can send the same message, but is far easier to maneuver in social situations.
Imagine if your watch didn’t just tell you what time it is, but instead intuitively gave you the myriad information that you really want as you look at your watch. Here’s an example:
Your workday is winding down and your mind wanders to what you’ll be doing when you get home. I would imagine you’re probably looking forward to seeing what GeekSided published since you went to work (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you don’t surf the ‘net at work). Before you let yourself get too enamored with these post-work thoughts, though, you need a reality check. What the hell time is it anyway? It has been such a long day. I wonder if I’ll have time for drinks before checking GeekSided on my tablet in my La-Z-Boy back home.
Today, you look down at your watch, see the time, and start doing calculations. Is there a problem with this? Maybe not, you probably don’t even register this as a memorable event in your day.
Now, imagine this. You look down and you see this instead of the time:
Oh, yeah! Your daughter’s birthday party is tonight, a week before her real birthday because of that scheduling conflict. There’s no time for drinks because you need to get those party supplies and get your butt home for her big night. Suddenly, your life loses its resemblance to Jim Carrey’s character’s in Liar Liar thanks to your smartwatch.
Reminders? What’s the point?
If you’re a real skeptic, I doubt you’re buying in just yet. Your phone can buzz. You can just be on top of these little things. Fair enough.
Google Now comes in here. Google Now isn’t just about keeping your pre-existing plans in order, it’s about putting the world at your fingertips without you needing to move those fingertips. Google Now’s promotional site starts off by saying “just the right info at just the right time.” That’s right.
Right now, diligent users of Google Now might run into this kind of news right before they dash off to home:
Yikes. I bet you did not plan for that.
Now imagine this on your watch. You hop in the car, you’re on the way home without a care in the world. As long as you get in the door before the White Sox game starts, the night will be perfect. Suddenly, a vibration on your wrist. You glance down and you see that your commute time is doubled because of an accident. Luckily, you’re just a couple taps or voice cues away from an alternate route being dictated and shown to you by your watch.
Yes, being on your watch is a meaningful difference
In a video for developers, a Google representative explained the way we interact with our phones with the aid of this chart:
Out of context, this probably doesn’t mean a lot. Green refers to the times you aren’t engaged with your phone, red refers to the process of grabbing it, and the blue represents the time you use it. Now, as a contrast, the chart for a laptop or desktop computer would consist of very long lines of green followed by slightly longer red lines and then very long blue lines. Computers are for sustained interactions.
Wearables, on the other hand, make smartphones look like computers in this regard. Here’s the way the same video represents the way Google expects us to use Android Wear devices:
You engage with it more often, but rarely do you get “lost” in it. Part of this is physical; the watch is on your arm and readily accessible, yet isn’t very useful for immersive use since it’s only the size of a watch. The other part is how Google envisions the way we’ll use these devices. A smartwatch won’t be a phone you wear on your arm; it will do something different. You will get relevant, actionable information that will launch you into real-life tasks.
In this way, the beeper is the forerunner to the smartwatch. You don’t do anything to a beeper, you just get the information, acknowledge it, and use it. It’s unlikely you’ll become very gung-ho about making phone calls or sending texts with your smartwatch beyond the most succinct communications. Luckily, that’s not what a smartwatch needs to be. It’s your beeper, but more beautiful, more descriptive, and much less annoying.
Oh, the traffic’s bad? I better get ready to leave early.
There’s a thunderstorm warning. I better call off that picnic.
I just got an email from my boss. I better get to work on that.
My favorite team just made a trade. I better go see the reaction on the FanSided network.
My flight is delayed. I better make a call to the airline to get my connecting flight lined up.
That package didn’t get delivered. I better contact the eBay seller.
You get the idea. Google gets to leverage the things they are indisputably best at:
- Search – in other words, giving people exactly what they are looking for with the least possible information given
- Maps – Google’s crowd-sourced platform and their acquisition of Waze means they rule the world of directions, live traffic updates, and just about everything else in regard to mapping.
- Voice recognition – We might have fallen in love with Siri if she could only understand what we were saying. Ever since Google rolled out its voice search, analysts have agreed about its superiority. Outside of those two, nobody else has been in the game long enough to compete just yet.
Search and Google Now are close to one and the same. The same things that make Google so good at serving search results as well as ads are the talents that make Google Now so incredibly useful when you need it and out of the way when you don’t. Maps are a natural selling point for a watch that also parlays interestingly into fitness functionality. And if you didn’t think typing things on a smartphone was fun, let’s forget it on a watch; that’s where voice input comes in.
To me, Android Wear fixes the fatal flaw with Google Now. On a smartphone interface, it is very difficult to balance intrusiveness and usefulness. If Google Now isn’t noticeable enough, its utility is wasted as you miss its insights. When it’s too noticeable, especially when it doesn’t have much beyond the weather for you, it’s a nuisance that you might even opt out of. This is the current maximum intrusiveness of Google Now:
If you’re not familiar, that’s what its notification looks like. I’m left to wonder what information is awaiting me on those other 5 cards. If I’ve swiped away the notification and I want to get to Google Now, I have to enter the Google Search app to do so. This might seem trifling, but it’s everything. The point of Google Now is that it will work for you when you couldn’t possibly do so.
It isn’t as simple as changing the notification scheme on Android, either. If it’s just a White Sox game (I usually don’t forget since it’s part of my daily routine) and the current, boring weather, making it more obvious will piss me off. I grab my phone to do something specific, not to be badgered about things I already know.
On a watch, you are looking just for information. You don’t look at your watch every 45 seconds because you have no idea how much time has passed. You just want more details on the time that has passed. With Android Wear, you’ll be able to look at your watch and get all of those little details about the present moment. The beauty is that, unlike your smartphone, this information on a smartwatch will not be getting in your way.
Everything we know so far seems to indicate that Google understands what a treasure they have for the smartwatch market in Google Now. If they get caught in a rat race over fitness features (though that software has been developed and Android’s openness should make for a competitive product) or screens or whatever else gets marketed to death, they’ll miss it. I don’t think Google is going to suddenly forget what they are great at doing.