Smartwatches are still sort of dumb, and that's mostly because they haven’t been designed so much as platforms in their own right, but as second screens to your smartphone. So you get a text message on your watch, only to pull out your phone to answer it. Or you want to go for a jog, but you still need to bring the phone because that’s where your Spotify app streams all the music.
Today, Google has announced Android Wear 2.0. Available this fall, it’s the biggest update to its smartwatch OS in two years, and it rethinks everything from the core UI flow to the way watch faces work. But the biggest change is this: Android Wear watches no longer need a stupid smartphone to work.
Instead, Android Wear 2.0 devices can run their own apps, and connect directly to the cloud, via Wi-Fi or onboard LTE. Smartwatches are about to work a lot more like smartphones.
Anyone who’s been using a smartphone—by Google or Apple—is familiar with the strange pseudo-functionality at times, and the persistent lag of the UI. This is the natural side effect of running apps on the phone and beaming the results to the watch.
As Brett Lider, design lead for Android Wear explains, this approach made sense in the ancient era of 2014, because neither Wi-Fi nor cellular chipsets seemed possible within the cramped wrist form factor. All smartwatches could rely upon was Bluetooth, and Bluetooth requires a phone. "At the time that the team was founded...the assumption that the device would be tethered to a handset almost at all times was reasonable," he says." I think the team made a series of [decisions] at the software level that were based upon that."
Now that upcoming smartwatches have chipsets that more closely resemble phones, the Android Wear team is able to design the watch OS more like the phone from a functional standpoint.
Android Wear 2.0 solves one of the most basic shortcomings of smartwatches: their clunky text messaging. Before, a text from your friend would be stuck into a generalized notification stack. It would look like any other update from any other app. And you could only see that single message by itself—who knows what the greater context of the conversation was.
"People care about their notifications. But if you tell people, ‘you can get your notifications on your wrist!,’ people are like, ‘this doesn’t sound that interesting to me. Sounds like a way for anonymous third party services or people I don’t know to get my time,’" says Lider. "But if you approach the value proposition in a slightly different way, empower the users, and say, ‘You’re going to get messages from the people you care about, and you’ll be able to be more in touch with people and respond to people more quickly—and turn down the rest of the world—then that starts shifting people’s interest."
As a result of this thinking, messages have been completely redesigned, highlighting your friend’s photo, fixing the type design to feel more like a conversation (it’s as easy as bolding your name and adding better spacing), and allowing you to see the full thread of a conversation simply by scrolling down.
To respond to a text, you can still use voice transcription to speak your response, but the Android Wear team has put considerable effort into building in handwriting recognition and a usable keyboard for those times when you don’t want to talk to your wrist (which, for some of us, is always).
At first, Lider actually didn’t believe sticking a QWERTY on a smartwatch could work—indeed, a 3-inch keyboard sounds like material for an SNL parody—but his team was insistent it could, plus there was a need for it beyond messaging. If Android Wear ran its own apps, many of those apps would require passwords. And while Google has developed a few simpler security workarounds that haven’t been detailed yet, when you’re dealing with passwords, sooner or later people will need to type.
When Google needed a means to enter passwords to authenticate Android Wear apps, the problem at hand became, in a sense, its own solution—because an Android Wear watch that can run apps can also run a version of Google’s own machine learning typing system. So as you type, it predicts the words that you’re about to punch in. For passwords, that kind of prediction is not helpful—but messaging on a tiny keyboard becomes a lot more reasonable as typing "ILCYIAM" becomes "I’ll call you in a minute."
Apps that run on the watch are also constantly producing data. Maybe it’s an app that counts how many glasses of water you’ve drank that day, or an app that’s tracking the weather. The question becomes, how do you surface this information in a way that’s both simple and relevant to the user?
There is actually no one way to do it, actually, and that’s the problem for the Android Wear design team. "I walked into smartwatches assuming people didn’t want to customize them a lot, that it would just be too fiddly," says Lider. "What we hear from users is, ‘This is a personal device. I want to customize it.’"
So instead, Android Wear 2.0 watch faces will be able to display app data as "complications" (you know complications as those extra tiny little circles for the month or a timer on sport watches) chosen by the user. In fact, any developer who makes a watch face can suck in information from any app (as long as that app is sharing some of its data).
In simple terms, this means a user could add a Gmail counter, the temperature, and even the picture of the person they message most, right to their Android Wear watch face. The watch face designer essentially becomes a data visualization specialist, free to present the information as they see fit. But the user gets to choose exactly which of their apps appear on the watch face.
These complications can also be working buttons, linking you to functions deep within apps. For that aforementioned water drinking app, tapping a glass of water could take you to the app, automatically register that you drank a glass of water, and then take you back to your watch face. It’s not perfectly elegant—why should the other app have to load on the screen at all?—but the design strategy is compelling all the same. Google is designing the smart watch face as something that does a lot more than tell the time.
Now that it’s being treated as an independent platform, Android Wear’s core UI has gotten a lot more usable.
Thanks to a collaboration with the Material Design team, navigating on a smartwatch is getting a lot easier. Both Android Wear and the Apple Watch require users to navigate a confusing zig zag, an esoteric pattern of right swipes and down swipes to navigate content. And neither offers much in terms of visual feedback or solutions if you take a wrong term.
Instead, Android Wear's core navigation is now entirely vertical. You just go up and down to peruse one long sheet of virtual paper—and to get to deeper options, you can pull from the very top or bottom of the screen. With notifications in one stack, a subtle scroll bar curves alongside the edge of a curved watch’s screen, cueing how many notifications are left to see. (Before this update, you’d have no idea if there were 2 messages or 20 waiting.) And if you do manage to get lost, you just tap the button on the side of the watch to go back.
"We tried with [Android Wear] 1.0 to be really minimalist," says Lider. "And I think this shows, in some places, we cut too far."
The UI has also become notably darker, which is easier on the eyes and less LCD-looking than the white glow of Android Wear before. And the App Launcher is one of the most compelling uses of UI on a round display I’ve seen yet. This simple list of apps snakes just inside the watch’s rounded edge, actually buying more real estate for the UI than a simple vertical list would have.
Now that Android Wear is its own platform that doesn’t rely upon a smartphone to do its thinking, our smartwatches can finally become something more akin to the standalone phone replacements that we always imagined. For iPhone users, the upgrades will be particularly compelling. Android Wear 2.0 will be able to treat the iPhone like a router, circumventing any limitations born from Apple’s software. So whether you use Android or iOS, your Android Wear 2.0 watch should operate with parity.
Of course, it’s possible that watches that run all their own apps and connect to the cloud on their own will be burning through a lot more battery. Lider dismisses the possibility that battery life will drop with Android Wear 2.0, but given that current battery technology is a limitation for all wearables, it’s possible that some third party developers may go overboard with their new capabilities and ask too much of the watch, destroying battery life in the process.
But in the bigger picture, Android Wear 2.0 takes a quiet but massive step forward in the evolution of wearables. By weening its way off the phone, it paves the way for a future of smart accessories—and maybe even, one day, clothing—that can operate without the brain of your smartphone. So even if you forget your phone at home, your socks and belt can still work.
All Images: via Google