android_wear

Google is already on your computer, your tablet, and your smartphone. Now the company is coming to your wrist with Android Wear, the wearable-specific version of its mobile operating system, and smartwatches from manufacturing partners like HTC, Motorola Mobility, and LG.

Those smartwatches will boast many of the same features as their predecessors: they will buzz when someone calls you, show email headlines on their tiny displays, and serve notifications from all kinds of social and messaging services. But many smartwatches can become glorified notification systems — Google is hoping that its offerings will be more than a wearable beeper.

So the company has built additional features, such as the ability to query its many online services or control other Android-powered devices with a few voice commands, to make these smartwatches stand out from competitors like the Pebble Steel or Qualcomm Toq. It also brings fitness tracking features that can “give you real-time speed, distance and time information on your wrist for your run, cycle or walk,” according to a post on the company’s blog, allowing these devices to compete with dedicated trackers like Nike’s FuelBand.

Android Wear is currently available as a developer preview. The first smartwatches with the operating system installed are poised to launch later this year, which is when many expect Apple to introduce its long-awaited “iWatch,” an iOS-powered device with similar features.

These products would finally allow the companies responsible for the platforms other companies have built their own wearable devices on to enter a nascent market. It would also allow Apple to prove it can still define new product categories, and let Google expand its presence from your desk, your backpack, and your pocket to your wrist. And, if the company is able to deliver on its promises, it might bring a few smarts to some dumb watches.

Existing smartwatches are anything but smart. The Samsung Galaxy Gear is “simply an expensive accessory with limited functionality and an even more limited battery that won’t ship with support for Samsung’s flagship smartphone,” as I wrote in a post arguing that calling the product a smartwatch is a disservice to the word “smart.” Pebble’s products are a little better, but have been widely criticized for their limited functionality, as the New York Times notes:

As smartwatches proliferate and mature, the Pebble is in danger of being lapped by more feature-rich watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2, which includes fitness-tracking capabilities and a camera (as long as you are using one of the Samsung phones it supports). The next Pebble should focus as much on features as on looks, and there is room for improvement with both.

The Pebble Steel is definitely an aesthetic improvement over the original Pebble, but its features are not all that different, and that means it is not quite keeping up with the competition.

Google is poised to address those issues by offering a platform on which manufacturers can build devices that allow wearers to ask questions of Google’s ever-expanding Knowledge Graph, control their smartphones or television sets, and easily access their digital lives. (That’s assuming that the company delivers on all of its promises, of course, which is a slight gamble.) Doing all of those things without requiring you to identify as a “Glasshole” as you attempt to figure out when it’s appropriate to wear the controversial Google Glass headset is an added bonus.

Pando’s James Robinson identified the problem with many smartwatches — and other wearable devices — in a report about the $458 million invested in the category last year:

In an interview late last year with Reuters, Shasta Ventures’ Rob Coneybeer said that the ‘iPhone moment for wearables is still a year or two off.’ He’s right, in the sense that no single piece of innovation past the Fitbit – which in itself is just a vastly more connected pedometer – has ignited wide demand. Fitbit’s James Park has a different idea on this. He said that there will be no set form factor for wearable technology, that some people will want a watch, some glasses, some a shirt that tells them how well they slept.

Either way, the next hurdle for wearable technology to clear now the money is flowing the right way is create something past an activity tracker that proves itself indispensable, that makes sense in a deeply organic way and can show off wearables to be more than very clever technology that no one actually needs.

It seems that Google is attempting to do just that with Android Wear. The wearables market is still young, but with products from Google and (potentially) Apple on the horizon, it might justify the massive amounts of attention and venture capital invested in it over the last year.