Google's Android Wear software will let you leave your phone at home (if there's Wi-Fi)

The search giant announces a handful of new features, including new capabilities that make a watch run independent of a phone, all ahead of the Apple Watch's launch on Friday.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Google announced new updates to Android Wear, including Wi-Fi capability. Sarah Tew/CNET

Google wants to make smartwatches less dependent on smartphones.

For now, to use most smartwatches, you need to connect the device to your smartphone and keep your phone nearby. That's no longer going to be necessary for wrist-worn devices powered by Google's Android Wear software, the company said Monday. Instead, the devices will let you connect your watch to a Wi-Fi network and receive updates about emails and upcoming calendar appointments directly over the Internet.

You'll still need to allow your watch to pull information from your phone -- and have your phone connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network -- but then you'll be able to receive notifications, send messages and use apps on your watch. That's no matter where your phone is -- and your phone and watch don't have to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network.

The new features come as the market for smartwatches heats up. Google unveiled Android Wear more than a year ago, but awareness for smartwatches is on the rise thanks to the Apple Watch, which launches Friday. Numerous other companies are jumping in too, including smartphone behemoth Samsung, LG, Sony and a popular startup called Pebble.

Google and Apple have good reason to invest in wearables. Nearly 20 million wearable devices were shipped in 2014, according to research firm IDC. The firm forecasts that figure will jump to 45.7 million by the end of this year, and to 126.1 million units by 2019.

Still, Google has had trouble finding its footing in the nascent market. Android Wear grabbed nearly 16 percent of the total "smart wearable bands" market in 2014, according to research firm Canalys. That crop of devices includes watches powered by Android Wear -- such as Motorola's Moto 360 and Samsung's Gear Live. The Android Wear devices collectively made up 720,000 units of the total 4.6 million units sold last year.

Google isn't the only one trying to make smartwatches more independent. Samsung makes a watch it calls the Gear S, which is powered by special software the company created called Tizen and can double as a cell phone with its own wireless connection.

Google has other ways it's separating the watch from the phone. The company said in September that users could store songs on their watch, meaning they could listen while on a jog, even if there was no Internet nearby.

What's in the update

The Wi-Fi support for Android Wear will be the key feature of Google's next update. But the new software will also have a function to always leave the screen on while you're using an app, instead of the current setting which sometimes turns the screen off. That feature could be useful on a hike, if you want to leave a map on the smartwatch screen, for example. To save battery, the screen goes to black and white when you're not looking at it.

The watch screen goes to black and white when you're not staring at it. Google

Google is also also introducing a new hands-free feature, which lets you flick your wrist to the left and right to navigate back and forth between pages on the watch screen. The software also lets you draw emojis on the screen.

The software update will first be available on the new LG Urbane watch -- which doesn't yet have a specific launch date -- but other Android devices will be able to get the update over the Internet soon after, Google said.

The update is not expected to allow Android Wear devices to work with Apple's iPhones, though news reports say that compatibility is coming. It's potentially the next frontier as it moves to more aggressively compete against Apple and the widening field of competitors. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.