Google has made a splash in the wearables space with its much-hyped Google Glass smart eyewear, but due to the $1,500 cost and the plethora of privacy concerns surrounding Glass (Mashable reports privacy concerns cause 72% of Americans to reject Google Glass), I gravely doubt it will ever be more than a novelty product for tech enthusiasts. To me, Google Glass has been a sociological experiment as well as a technological one, with the reactions surrounding the usage and appearance often being more interesting than the actual functions. Some companies are in need of policies regarding Google Glass usage, demonstrating its potentially controversial and disruptive effects.
Enter Google's Android Wear, what seems to be the Everyperson's safer (saner?) alternative to Google Glass. It's a vision of a smartwatch (provided by different manufacturers such as LG and Motorola; Asus and HTC have also been reported to be on the list) which offers the following options:
- Form-factor based user interface (UI)
- Voice-activated or touch-based commands
- Ability to rapidly retrieve customized information such as weather, meetings, travel details, Google searches, etc.
- Communication capabilities such as text messaging
TechRepublic featured a great introduction to Android Wear a couple of months ago. The article pointed out that Android Wear "appears to be a combination of Google Glass and Google Now." The introductory video shows the same sort of Google Now cards that users of that product are familiar with; the product is designed to help get useful up-to-the minute information to users by working in conjunction with their smartphones.
TechRepublic also pointed out the issues that fitness-related wearable devices (examples such as the Nike Fuelband and the Fitbit Flex wristbands) had captured the public's imagination, since these are a niche product but many who buy these lose interest in them. As a likely result, Nike is closing shop on its wearable hardware.
I can relate to some extent. I have a Garmin running watch which helps me keep track of distance, speed, and other statistics while exercising outdoors. I'm a dedicated runner, but I usually remember the watch only about a quarter of the time even though it is a really handy assistant. If I return home tired after a long run, that's about all the feedback I need, and my body provides it without third-party help.
Bringing in the community
Android Wear is a larger-scale idea which will bring about more features (but will likely also include the fitness-related ones as part of its umbrella). Google acknowledges the concepts behind Android Wear are new ground and that they've yet to establish the full range of possibilities. That's where the public comes in.
Google has opened those possibilities to all in an effort to build community participation in the project. Open models are standard in the tech industry, but it's interesting to me how Google is working with developers to build Android Wear. A Developer Preview SDK is available to start extending existing Android apps into a wearable environment. It allows you to use the Android Wear platform in an Android emulator, then connect your smartphone/tablet and view notifications or try out application program interfaces (APIs). An Android Wear Preview App is available (Android 4.3 and above) to check out. Google provides advice on the UI overview, design principles, creating notifications, working with voice input, and more. They've laid quite an elaborate and detailed trail of bread crumbs through the developmental forest, making it clear this is an intended partnership.
The Google I/O developer's conference is coming next month, so Google is especially gung-ho about promoting Android Wear through developer contributions in time for this event. "Early participants can gain direct design and product feedback from our team, and possibly, higher visibility from exposure at I/O, our collections and in the Google Play store. Send us an email with a link to your APK and, optionally, open source code to email@example.com," encouraged Louis Gray, senior program manager of Google developer relations at Google.
Delivering the goods
The watches themselves are coming later this year, and thus will be ready for the software being written. At the moment it seems as if Europe is going to be the initial launch pad for some of these products. LG's G Watch will debut for $199 euros in France ($272.63 U.S. dollars according to the exchange rate as of late May, 2014). The Moto 360 has been rumored to have a cost of $249 euro ($341.13). Others will surely follow. Perhaps these will be included with smartphone purchases by forward-thinking carriers, or perhaps they will remain standalone devices for increased productivity, but $200-$300 is certainly a more palatable investment than $1500 in either case.
The battle of the brands
Google is riding high in the saddle now, having just been ranked as the most valuable global brand by a BrandZ study. Apple ranked second, having been knocked down from the position they held at first for several years. Coincidentally, both companies are planning a smartwatch revolution, with Apple supposedly working on its mysterious iWatch (which some aren't sure even exists just yet and is not expected to be unveiled at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco next month). I believe the iWatch is under development, but in a closed environment with no outside community participation.
It will be interesting to see not which products come to light first (Google is the obvious frontrunner here) but which ones have staying power and can build user loyalty. Google's open model deserves praise, but Apple has always had excellent intuition into the needs of their users, so as the saying goes, keep an eye on this space.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.