Wearable tech has been a big, messy patch of tech wilderness. Then along came Google, announcing Android Wear and a future developer SDK. Google's not the first major company to enter wearables (Samsung, Sony), but this is a big moment nonetheless. It's the first time any software manufacturer has attempted to enter the wearables landscape and attempt to lay down some sort of order.
It's also Google's second wearables endeavor after Glass. The differences between Glass and its launch and what we know about Android Wear so far are quite, quite different.
Android Wear seems -- from the few products we've seen, the glitzy promo videos, and the documentation Google's laid out -- to be an initiative. Not unlike Glass, Google's 2013 wearable game plan, but different. It's 2014, and Google has a different game afoot. Android Wear is a new stake in the ground...and a line in the sand.
Android Wear watches are no prototype
As Google itself has been quick to point out, Google Glass as we currently know it isn't a finished product. It's a "project," a living prototype, and a chance for early explorers to try out new tech at a high entry price. Android Wear is all about real products that'll be ready to go by summer.
This also means that Android Wear represents Google's first actual foray into consumer wearables -- not Glass, which is really more of a high-profile experiment.
Defining smartwatches: simplicity, comfort
We don't really have a firm grasp yet on what smart wearables should be, look like, or emphasize. Google is laying down a sort of reference design for watches not unlike what happened with ultrabooks and netbooks. Will future watch-makers start assuming that the features Google is emphasizing will be the ones smartwatches need? Google is the biggest player with the most potential hardware partners, so the answer might be yes.
Google Glass actually feels comfortable to wear, but Glass is a product that by its nature is meant to stand out, and even stand in the way between you and the world around you. Google claims that Glass gets out of the way, but really, anything you're wearing on your face that has a lens and a screen is hardly discreet.
The Android Wear-powered Moto 360, as a product, has a very different approachability standpoint than Google Glass. It looks like a watch. Motorola intended for it to look like a watch, to blend in, to feel comfortable, and natural to use. Google Glass, by comparison, even when mounted on regular glasses-frames, pops out.
Unlike the Pebble's many specific and different apps or the square-icon-style app navigation of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Android Wear seems to push basic notifications to the forefront. Will apps change that experience later on? Are these initial baby steps to ease people into the idea of Android Wear? It's hard to tell, but the aesthetic and functional vibe thus far seems to be about quick-glance push-to-your-wrist interactions.
Move the focus from face to wrist
Google Glass is all about being on your face. Android Wear shifts that focus to the wrist: so far, in the form of a smartwatch with a screen. That dodges the "Glasshole" perception problem of Glass. There's no camera in any of the Android Wear watches we know about right now, unlike the Samsung Gear 2 and, of course, Glass. No camera means no worries about privacy, bar bans, or other creeping.
The funny thing is, the rest of Android Wear's UI and design principles are an awful lot like the beginnings of Google Glass. The notifications stack, the desire to offer a clear, simple, uncluttered type of notification...this is what Google Glass Mirror API emphasized during last year's Google I/O.
"Contextually aware and smart," "glanceable," "zero/low interaction," "helpful." The basic card-like stack of notifications, the way you talk to your Android Wear device to do something, even the optional pull-down touch menu of other actions to take, all feel a lot like what you can do with Glass.
That might mean that Android Wear flexes out in the future, to more in-depth types of apps and interaction-heavy use cases. Right now, it's important to note, all we know about is the Android Wear developer preview -- not even the SDK.
Allowing multiple interaction methods: talk or touch
Speaking of Glass, it looks like chirping out "OK, Google" to your watch will be a big part of how you use Android Wear, too. The Moto 360 and LG G Watch will allow voice commands, or you'll be able to simply touch the screen. The only problem is, for more specific functions you might find yourself needing to speak a specific command. Or maybe not. With Glass, you can tap and swipe your way to a lot of features, but speaking what you want can get you there faster provided Glass understands you.
Android Wear devices will have microphones. Will you want to use them? Google seems set on touch, talk, and gestures as the key methods of interaction. Will talking find a way to work?
Get on the fitness bandwagon
Nobody wants to wear more than one thing on their wrist. Fitness has been the most tangible, if evolutionary, feature for any wearable gadget. Android Wear, unusually, has downplayed fitness for the time being.
For now, Android Wear seems to be emphasizing notficiations over any sort of detailed health-tracking magic, although the Developer Preview page does promise a wide range of sensor cross-compatibility for Android Wear apps, from "accelerometers to heart rate monitors."
Would that mean Android Wear devices are meant to pair with fitness accessories, or fold those features directly in, like Samsung's upcoming Gear products? We don't know yet. But that might be open to hardware partners to decide. Many people want fitness smartwatches, but not necessarily everyone.
Don't go it alone, work with partners
Google Glass was Google-made. Android Wear, instead, is starting with hardware partners: LG and Motorola to start, and Samsung, Asus, Broadcom, Fossil, HTC, Intel, Mediatek, MIPS, and Qualcomm are also listed as initial hardware partners.
Will there be a "Nexus" Android Wear watch, a true reference design? Maybe not. Judging by Motorola and LG, it looks like all the products will have a chance to shine on their own.
Then again, many of these hardware partners are known for playing all sides of the field at once. Many might have wearables running different OS platforms, much like one company might make Windows, Android and Chrome products at the same time.
Now, consider Google's relationship with the other 800-pound gorilla in wearable tech: Samsung. The timing of Android Wear's first teaser announcements is no accident: Samsung's already-announced Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit wearables will emerge in early April, and Android Wear -- with its poster-child smartwatches, the Moto 360 and LG G Watch -- has landed right in the path.
More details on Android Wear probably won't emerge until Google I/O, Google's developer conference in late June, and both LG and Motorola watches are slated for release around summer. So, for now, Android Wear is a big flag waving to weary wearable developers with the message, "Come with us if you want to live."
Samsung just made the move to its Tizen OS for its own wearables. So, then, Android Wear seems like a direct platform competition. But Samsung has been listed as an Android Wear partner, and Samsung often plays multiple sides of the software landscape at once, but maybe this is Google's way of encouraging anyone other than Apple that adopting Android Wear is the way to go in the future.
Setting up an app and platform showdown
Google has Android Wear. Samsung has Gear. Apple will have something, someday. That's three platforms. Will Microsoft have a wearables division with its own apps? What about smaller guys like Pebble? By the end of 2014 we may be looking at a few dominant development platforms and a lot of random hardware and software companies trying to pick sides. How that all shakes out will determine a lot of where wearables are heading next.
Google Glass will still be a part of Google's plans, but will Android Wear emerge as the dominant platform that all Google wearables, including Glass, employ? Or will Glass and Android Wear remain separate? We'll know more in June.