The smartwatch’s potential to introduce novel and useful new apps and communication tools is difficult to deny. But the smartwatches currently on the market, including the Apple Watch and those built on Google’s Android Wear platform, don’t yet live up to that potential. In fact, the features that reports indicate Google plans to add to its smartwatch platform illustrate how redundant smartwatches’ communication features really are — and how pointless it really is to carry a smartwatch if you’ve already got a smartphone in your pocket.
Derek Ross reports for Phandroid that an Android Wear update, which Google originally scheduled for July 28 and has since shifted to sometime in August, will introduce tap gestures to watch faces and launch a watch-to-watch communication feature called “Together.” Taking a cue from the Digital Touch feature that enables Apple Watch users to send heartbeats, patterns, and drawings to one another, Google will enable Android Wear users to send each other messages, stickers, emojis, and doodles.
Aside from the obvious limitations — that messages can only be exchanged between Android Wear watches — the feature has other odd limits. Android Wear users who want to take advantage of the new commutation feature may be forced to use the same watch face, since the feature isn’t system-wide. Ross explains:
What’s most puzzling about the Together feature is that it seems to be restricted at this time to a single watch face. It’s not known if this feature will launch as a system application or stay tied to this particular watch face. The former would be very unintuitive as users would have to have the watch face selected to send and accept messages from one another. The information available to us is quite old and with Google’s rapid development, there’s no telling what will eventually make it into production, if at all.
The update will also add support for interactive watch faces. Android Wear currently enables users to swipe up to navigate notifications, swipe left to open the launcher, swipe down to open quick settings, and long press to open the watch face picker interface. The update will enable users to tap on the watch face to make aesthetic changes, launch activities, toggle between different states, reveal more information, and more.
There are already watch faces in the Google Play Store that support the single tap gesture via a “hacked” method that accesses the service window or uses invisible buttons, a workaround that isn’t supported by Google and can cause system conflicts. To make interactive watch faces and the single tap gesture officially work, Google will change the current method for activating the launcher. To start the launcher, users will need to swipe right to left, and tapping the watch face will no longer cause the launcher to activate when the update rolls out.
As Kevin Tofel reports for ZDNet, the last Android Wear update added a number of features that seemed to take cues from the Apple Watch, such as WiFi support and the ability to doodle on the display. However, the problem with the update that Google currently has in the works is that it aims at catching Android Wear up to what’s arguably one of the least important features of the Apple Watch. By focusing on communication features that are limited to messages between smartwatches, companies like Apple and Google stop short of taking on the problem of how to make smartwatches really useful.
One of the most-cited benefits of a smartwatch is that it enables you to pick up and unlock your phone fewer times per day. You can check notifications on your wrist to see if something is urgent enough to attend to now, and avoid picking up your smartphone if it can wait. You can control music or track a workout with a few taps from your wrist. But there’s a lot of room for improvement in the messaging features and communication tools on the most popular smartwatches, and it feels disappointing that Google is playing catch-up with what’s more or less a gimmick of the Apple Watch rather than introducing a more innovative look at messaging, even if it’s limited to communication between Android Wear watches.
It’s not likely to be anytime soon that the smartwatch isn’t substantially redundant for anyone who owns a smartphone, or that it’ll become convenient to send extended messages from a smartwatch. But as tech manufactures try to market the new category of devices, it seem too early in the game to rely on derivative upgrades and gimmicky updates rather than compelling new features to advance a smartwatch or smartwatch operating system.
Smartwatches are definitely fun to experiment with, exciting to watch apps evolve for, and certainly inspiring to the imagination. But when it comes to our ideas of what using a smartwatch for communication — arguably the most important purpose of the mobile devices we already use and love — could look like, reality has a long way to go to catch up with even the tamest of imaginations.