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Why Android Wear will lead the charge for wearable tech

By Evan Wade / May 7, 2014

Mobile devices and marriage make a good couple

Let’s get something clear from the start. Google Glass—as cool as it is—is not the future. Android Wear is not the future. Advancements in smartphones, tablets and all the other nifty stuff Google has planned to blow our fragile techie minds aren’t, either.

All those things combined, working together in glorious harmony? That is the future.

We talked a lot about the current and future state of Google’s ecosystem in last week’s update, but this time around, we want to hone in on wearables designed by the big G. As we said in that last article, tech companies have plenty of reasons to make their gadgets play nicely together, selling more units/services and making it harder to leave the ecosystem chief among them. That makes the potential interplay between wearable devices, smartphones and tablets even more exciting, especially if you have the cash to burn on all this drool-worthy technology coming down the pipeline.

Android Wear: the robot on your wrist

On March 18, the fine folks at Mountain View introduced a new initiative via their company blog: Android Wear, a trimmed-down, watch-sized version of their popular mobile OS, built to work in conjunction with existing Android phones and tablets.

It sounds like a watch-sized version of Glass, but there are a few twists. First, there’s already a developer preview, which was freely available from the day Google announced their watch-sized wundertech. Even though Google made a software preview (and later, the Explorer program) available pretty early in Glass’s lifecycle, it still didn’t happen as fast as the Android Wear preview.

Then there’s the fact that Glass is very hard to conceptualize until you actually have a pair parked on your nose. Wear is as common as checking the time on your wrist, making dreaming up applications for it a little easier—whether you’re a noted mobile dev or a fledgling techie. While Glass is a cool, futuristic concept with all kinds of promise, Wear is a heck of a lot more approachable right out of the gate.

That approachability opens all kinds of doors for Wear, ones that Glass will most certainly struggle through in its initial years as a full consumer product. The fact that at least two products from major manufacturers (LG’s G Watch and Motorola’s snazzy-looking Moto 360) could hit shelves before Glass sees a full release is just one proof of that concept.

It’s worth noting that it could be the market climate pushing Google’s hand here. The Pebble and Samsung’s line of wrist wearables are just two competing products consumers can buy at the moment. The competition for tech-infused eyewear, while still technically there, isn’t nearly as heated as what Wear faces the second it hits the market—supposedly summer of this year.

The apps and connectivity

Take a look at this excellent Ars Technica writeup of Wear’s firmware. Author Ron Amadeo breaks down a series of Android apps he opened on the developer preview. If his comments are accurate, they seemed to work pretty darn well. The secret comes from what the article calls an “incredible” use of Android 4.3’s Notification Access API, which allows Android Wear devices to pick and choose what’s relevant in a given application and cut it down into a watchicized form factor.

For popular Twitter app Plume, Amadeo says, “the Wear OS is able to pull in the app icon, text, and action buttons from the Android notification,” creating a trimmed-down app that isn’t custom-optimized for the form factor, but still quite useable. The author reports similar results with the official Google Plus app and others, including music apps.

That, to quote Jeff Spicoli, is righteous. Devs get to port their existing software with a vastly reduced amount of background work—and a much easier roadmap to dual-platform releases—while Users get trimmed-down versions of their favorite functional apps right out of the box. Most importantly, Google gets the legions of Android owners waiting on something that can play a little nicer with the devices they currently own.

Google’s powerful Google Now service fuels a lot of Wear’s cross compatibility. As the Ars writeup mentions, dictating a new text or reply is as easy as tapping the screen or saying “OK, Google.” Most apps will also feature Now’s voice response capability, further enhancing the functionality. And like their competitors, Wear watches will also pick up common phone alerts, like Facebook notifications and emails.

Enter the PAN

Not a lot has been said about how the watches will access mobile data, but we assume they will work a lot like Glass—Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, but no embedded cellular antennas. That kind of functionality will go a long way towards furthering the Personal Area Network (PAN) concept. While smartphones and tablets are the industry’s jack-of-all trades, “specialist” devices are pretty much guaranteed to become the next big/small thing. For example, phones and Glass both have cameras, but Glass, with its head-mounted form factor and point-head-and-shoot capabilities, is clearly the superior product as far as ease of use goes.

Google Glass

PAN obviously has the potential for revenue. As CNN and several other news outlets have noted, Google sold out of their entire Glass inventory during their one-day sale. When you consider the $1500 price tag and Glass’s not-always-favorable reviews, you have to figure a smaller, cheaper gadget designed to do many of the same things in a more recognizable form factor will sell out even faster.

Aside from Samsung, no other company comes close to offering the same cross-device functionality as Google at the moment. Mountain View is clearly leading the charge to make PAN proliferation a reality. With forward-thinking initiatives like the Notification Access APIs, it’ll probably be a while until anyone catches up. We’re certainly not saying Microsoft and Apple aren’t doing cool things, or that they won’t have even cooler stuff later down the line, but for now, Google’s really the only dog in the race. We just can’t wait for this summer, when we get to see exactly how well it runs.

Want to learn more about Google Glass? Check out our Trend Report.