Ever since Samsung reported slower sales for its flagship Galaxy S5, the race to develop smartwatches has never been more important for the Korean giant. Samsung is not the only tech giant developing smartwatches. Nike started developing an exercise band called Fitbit, before giving up. Sony is already on its second iteration of a smartwatch, while last week Montreal’s Neptune began shipping its Android-based Pine device to buyers.
It is clear that smartwatches are the next step in the evolution of mobile devices. Intel acquired Basis, a smartwatch maker, back in March. LG released the G Watch, while Motorola will release the Moto 360. Will users really embrace these devices? Are phones so hard to reach that people will want to pay for getting instant notifications on a wearable device?
Gear Live, which Samsung introduced last year at Google’s I/O 2014 event, lets users send text, take notes, or use the “Ok Google” command to activate other commands through voice recognition. Costing just CDN$219.99, the device has a very usable 1.63-inch sAMOLED screen, a quad-core processor, 4GB storage, and 512 MB RAM.
Samsung also has Gear 2, which runs a Tizen OS. For that reason, the device is compatible only with Samsung devices (such as the Galaxy and Note phones/phablets.)
Both the Gear Live and LG G watch follow a usability model whereby the technology is in control. Android Wear presents notifications on the smartwatch, but the user must respond to the notification and complete the task (be it responding to an email or tweet) on the phone. Still, users familiar with Google Now cards will find good value with Android Wear. Google collects information about the user, learning how to predict what information is important. Information is presented in a card format on the smartwatch, and becomes more useful as the system adapts to the user’s habits.
Google Now’s accurate and functional voice recognition makes Android Wear very usable. Searches on the smartwatch are contextual, since Google takes into account location, calendar appointments, and past search activity before presenting search results.
Until Apple formally announces an iWatch, consumers wanting to get a smartwatch will also need an Android phone.
No one should be surprised that the battery life is limited. Users demand that smartwatches be light and small, which means having a small battery. The battery in Android Wear is 300mAh – 400 mAh, so expect no more than a full day of use.
The smartwatch presents all notifications emanating from the phone. Since it does not give the user a way to filter or limit notifications, users may actually be better off sticking solely with a smartphone. BlackBerrys, for example, have a superior notification interface that does not overload its users with unimportant alerts.
Early adopters beware
Android Wear is in its first iteration for the consumer, which means early adapters will go through many bumps and bugs. This is no different for adopters for any other new technology. Thankfully, the trend for wearable tech becoming mainstream one day is very real. This means manufacturers and software companies will be highly motivated in releasing updates. Smartwatches will only get better as users report bugs and give their feedback.
Unsurprisingly, Android-based smartwatches have severe limitations. The chief weaknesses in them are weak battery life and limited control of notifications. Smartwatch demand is likely to accelerate, thanks to a low price point. Its adoption might even be faster than when smartphones were first introduced. This will motivate the developer community in designing and releasing iterations of applications for the platform quickly. In a short time, these wearable devices will become a necessity, not just a fad.