Wearables are everything that is right and everything that is wrong with tech right now. Most have been met with mixed reviews, with evangelists and dissenters battling it out in comment threads. Most wearables serve a niche market or a specific purpose, but none have seemed to meet the average smartphone user with a device that actually fits into everyday life. Until now.
Google gave wearables a giant leap forward on Tuesday, when it announced that it was bringing Android to wearables, and specifically to smartwatches. At first glance, the platform appears to be a combination of Google Glass and Google Now. Users prompt the device with "Ok Google" to ask Siri-esque questions, hail a taxi, send a text, make a restaurant reservation, or even control other Android devices. Google also announced an Android Wear SDK for developers.
Motorola showed off their Moto 360 almost in tandem with the Android Wear, releasing images that confirm a move toward fashion-friendly design. According to the developer video for Android wear, Google designed an entirely new UI for these devices. Users interact with voice commands or swipes to access information such as weather, flight times, and text messages.
Wearable computing has become largely synonymous with "wristwear" or the "smartwatch," and in an earlier article I argued that Google should focus its energy on Glass. However, as someone who has seen most wearables as pointless, the Android Wear platform looks like the first smartwatch that I would actually consider wearing.
Speculation abounded recently that Google was moving away from Android for wearables when Samsung announced at Mobile World Congress that it was powering its Gear 2 and Gear 2 neo with Tizen instead of Android. But, it seems that is not the case as Google listed Samsung as one of the partners that has signed on to produce Android Wear devices.
Google is throwing itself into the wearables market in such a major way will help to legitimize wearables in the market. As the builder of some of the most complex and powerful algorithms in the world, Google is uniquely positioned to help create wearables that can be useful outside of just niche markets.
"It's really one of the first products out there that solves a mass-market problem," said Dan Ledger, principal at Endeavour Partners.
The current market for wearables can be broken down into two categories — health trackers and productivity devices. There is nothing inherently wrong with most of these products, but they are each targeting a specific audience and neither is offering enough benefit to its users. One white paper conducted by Endeavour found that half of the buyers of a health tracker had stopped using their device.
The barrier to existing wearables is high. Users are often asked to wear poorly designed or uncomfortable products that only provide minimal functionality and insights.
"We finally have device that is going to push insights to your wrist that aren't already blindingly obvious," Ledger said.
Google is clearly targeting a broader audience. Android Wear smartwatches seem to behave less like a third-party app accessory and more like a satellite device for an Android phone. Google could not have developed a device that appears to be so intuitive without Google Now.
Android Wear will bring Google Now into your daily flow, making it less of something you check from time to time and more a part of the Android user experience. With the way Google lets the market experiment with ideas, this could prove itself a test case for further integration of Google Now into the ecosystem. I wouldn't be surprised if this marked the move of Google Now from your home button to your home screen.
Much of the Google Now functionality and the user interactivity are reminiscent of Glass, and Android Wear might be Google's attempt to make Glass-like functionality more accessible. While I still believe that Google Glass is a better product idea, Ledger is not convinced that it will catch on.
"Google Glass will never be a mass-market product — not in five years, not in 10 years," he said.
While there is a Glass app for iOS, there was no mention of an iOS app for Android Wear in Google's announcement. Being that these devices will likely operate in tandem with an existing Android device, providing users the ability to do things like send text messages, I believe it is highly unlikely that this will end up on iOS. Regardless of how that plays out, it is important to note how quickly companies like Google have thrown their hats into the wearables ring.
Both Ledger and Gene Dolgin, a senior manager at Endeavour, were surprised by how fast the big companies have responded to the wearables trend. Many of the wearables startups debuted their alpha and beta models only a couple years ago. Samsung and others responded relatively quickly, and the resources they have available mean that they will be able to develop more adaptive wearables for the broader market.
When it comes to the future of wearables, the big players like Google are threatening to dominate the marketplace and relegate the smaller players to niche applications. Because, as Dolgin said, "Their war chests are massive."
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.