By Oon Yeoh
I’ve written about smart watches before, most recently in relation to the 2014 Mobile World Congress where these devices were considered the hot items of the moment. Yet, I find myself hard to get excited over smart watches.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that I’m not a watch-wearing person. I haven’t done so in many years. When I want to see the time, I just look at my phone. The value proposition of smart watches thus far – acting as a second screen to my phone, allowing me to see e-mails and text messages on my wrist – is just not very compelling. I have no problem with just whipping out my phone from my pocket to check mails and messages.
Yet, with the recent announcement that Google is hopping aboard the smart watch bandwagon prompted the New York Times to say that the announcement of Android Wear means “Google has officially kicked off the wearables era”.
Why is Google’s entry into this field so important? The short answer is Google’s operating system. Right now, the smart watch sector is still going through an OS (operating system) war. On the one hand, you’ve got the Pebble OS. On the other hand, you’ve got Samsung’s Tizen. Neither is very satisfactory though.
Although Pebble has a lot of consumer support (it raised funds through Kickstarter) it has struggled to get developers to create apps for the watch because quite frankly, the market for Pebble watches is tiny.
Samsung’s first foray into the smart watch market was with Galaxy Gear which used the Android OS. However, it was a version that would allow it to work only with certain Samsung phones. For its follow up, Gear 2, Samsung switched to its own Tizen OS. It’s doubtful that many developers would be keen to develop apps for watches that can be synced with a limited number of phones.
With Google, you suddenly have critical mass. Android Wear will support many different smart phones, including iPhones. Even Samsung is likely to have some watches with Android Wear as it was listed in Google’s official list of partners. As a developer, a watch that works with all phones is something you might want to create an app for.
It’s natural for many smart watch-makers embrace Android Wear because they need not have to worry about OS and apps. That’s being taken care of by Google. The device makers can then focus on making cool-looking watches. So far, LG and Motorola have already announced Android Wear smart watches but others from Asus, HTC and probably even Samsung are coming.
Google has released a video of what you can expect from an Android Wear watch.
With Google in the game, it’s almost certain that Apple will want to create an iWatch. And perhaps at the end of the day, the two key platforms that compete in the mobile phone space will also compete in the smart watch space.
I believe there are three key success factors for a smart watch. The first is touchless control. Watch faces are way too small to work effectively as touch screen monitors. You’ll need to be able to speak to the watch and have it do things. The fact that Android Wear works with Google Now indicates that Android Wear smart watches will be heavily based on voice control. But it can’t be fully voice controlled because there will be situations where the scene is too noisy.
The second is strong contextual capabilities. Google Now is a service that’s ideal for wearables, with its contextual notifications about things like traffic, weather alerts, text messages and so on. Smart watches are only truly useful if they can generate intelligent notifications based on factors such where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going.
Lastly, battery life. People can accept charging a phone every night but not a watch. Pebble has got this aspect right. Android Wear and iWatch smart watches will have to be relatively low-powered devices. This is not going to be easy because of the functionalities people have come to expect of a smart watch.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.