As everyone knows by now, Apple Watch will be available this month. I looked at them at a nearby Apple Store the other evening. They are very cool. But you know who else has a pretty cool smartwatch? A bunch of companies! Some are based on proprietary systems and focus on fitness. But there are several based on Google’s Android Wear, basically making them extensions of your Android phone. The integration works nicely. For example, if your Android apps utilize notifications, there is nothing you as a developer need to do to have those notifications appear on your app users’ wearables.
But there is a lot more you can do to extend the functionality of your apps to Android wearables. Should you integrate wearables into your Android apps? If so, how? To answer those questions, let’s learn more about the wearables market in general, what wearables are used for and then delve into Android Wear. In a follow-up article, we will dig into some code.
What are Wearables and What Do People Do with Them?
The term “wearable” has evolved to just mean smartwatches these days. In fact, the Android Wear page on Google Play is subtitled “Information that fits your wrist as well as your lifestyle.”
Smartwatches have been around for several years, but are now evolving quickly. More often than not, they are still used to track fitness. This usually involves tracking your activity through a built-in pedometer and monitoring your heart rate. Many also have the ability to track your sleep patterns and are evolving to provide more and more functionality through hardware or software. In addition to being a watch (often with changeable faces), some of these devices also have gyroscopes, vibrations for notifications, microphones and more.
These devices connect to your Apple or Android phone through Bluetooth allowing you to view notifications and perform basic tasks quickly without having to pull out and fumble around with a phone. In fact, Google has stated this efficiency is a key goal of their pursuit of wearables so that people can be more engaged in the real world.
Interaction with smartwatches is very often in the form of notifications (covered in more depth below) but can range from giving you control of your music or Google Maps directions. Common uses include:
- Weather – view current conditions and forecasts
- Calendar – quickly see what meetings and events are upcoming
- Texts and emails – read emails and, since most have embedded microphones and are voice-activated, you can dictate a text or email hands-free.
And the list of possibilities will surely grow as users and developers get more comfortable with wearables. In fact, read on as there is a list of some of the more interesting and useful apps that have been modified for Android Wear.
Three Smartwatch Categories
You can categorize smartwatches into three buckets: Apple Watch, Android Wear and Other. Let’s take a brief look at each.
Non-Apple/Non-Android Wear Bands/Watches
This category is mostly comprised of fitness bands and has been around for several years. Many began as basic plastic bands with pedometers, but over the last few years quality and functionality have evolved considerably. You can track your sleep and heart-rate and receive call notifications from your phone. Manufacturers include Pebble, Samsung, Adidas, Garmin, Jawbone and Misfit.
Manufacturers like Pebble are working to extend their devices’ functionality even further by creating their own app stores. Interestingly, the Pebble app store is accessible through the Pebble app which you install on your iPhone or Android phone. You get the Pebble app at the App Store or Google Play.
The Apple Watch is already being called the most ambitious smartwatch ever. At the time of this writing, you could pre-order an Apple Watch and even receive a demonstration in an Apple store. These devices start over $300 and extend to about $17,000. The breadth of watches is stunning, but as I understand it, the internal specifications and functionality are the same across all Apple Watches.
Like Android wearables, most of your interaction with the Apple Watch is done via swiping and tapping as well as voice. The Apple Watch also has a “Digital Crown” on one site which can be spun to ease navigation. And there is a second button that pulls up favorite contacts and performs a few other functions.
Apple recently reported that over 3,500 Apple Watch apps had already been submitted. The rush is on. If you are an Apple developer/publisher, check out some of the fine articles on Apple Watch here at Chupamobile, including two tutorials by Jorge Jordán on how to extend your apps to the Apple Watch.
Android Wear – The Basics
Google announced Android Wear March 18, 2014 and the first watches were released that summer by LG and Samsung. There are currently five great watches available through Google Play, including devices from Motorola, Asus and Sony – all of which are less expensive than the most basic Apple Watch. The Android Wear OS was updated in December to add a watch face API to install third-party watch faces, and incorporate Android 5.0 Lollipop features such as checking battery status and storage space. For a phone to properly work with Android Wear, it needs Android version 4.3 or later.
The interaction with the phone is mostly comprised of Google Now and notifications. In fact, once you have connected your watch to your phone, you will automatically start receiving notifications. In order to install dedicated apps on your watch, you will need to install the Android Wear app on your phone. Then access Google Play from your phone to find the app you want and it will automatically transferred to your watch. Once an app is on your watch, you can launch it by scrolling or issuing a voice command.
Whenever you receive an email, a text, a Facebook friend request, or any other notification, the goal is to get the essential information quickly, without having to pull out your phone. The basic finger-based interactions are similar to Android on your phone, but swiping takes on added importance. For example, swipe a notification to the right to get more info about it or swipe right to dismiss it.
A closer look at the Moto 360
In order to better understand the Android Wear category, let’s take a closer look at one of the hottest Android Wear watches on the market today – Motorola’s Moto 360. This is not a full review or list of features, but rather an attempt to help you understand certain aspects of Android Wear smartwatches.
The Moto 360 is a beautiful watch, with a small bezel and a round screen, making it look more like a traditional watch than many smartwatches. Adding to the effect is a beautiful stainless steel outer body (in black or silver/gray) and a button on the side that will turn on the display and quickly access settings. It is water and dust resistant – NOT waterproof, but at least you do not have to worry about a little rain or splashing when you wash your hands. It has all the basic functionalities, but lacks some of the impressive specifications or features of some Android wearables. But it seems to have found the sweet spot (relative to other Android Wear watches) by balancing form, function and price.
The Moto 360 touchscreen is 320 x 290 resolution and 205ppi. Other Android Wear smartphones have even better screen specifications. One interesting thing about the Moto 360 is that it has an ambient light sensor at the bottom of the screen which is intended to help you better manage brightness and battery life. The downside is that it takes a small amount of screen real estate and contributes to what some people have called the flat tire effect.
You are provided an array of software-based watch faces, and new ones are appearing on Google Play regularly. When your phone receives a notification, the watch lets you know visually and through vibration. You can swipe and tap the watch to dismiss or access notifications or use your voice. If, for example, the notification is a text, you can reply to the sender using the watch’s built in microphone and never touch your phone. Several reports indicate that the voice recognition on the Moto 360 and other smartwatches is considerably less than perfect, especially in noisy environments. Presumably, this will improve over time with software upgrades and hardware iterations.
The Moto 360 can connect to any Android device using Android 4.3 or higher. It has 4GB of storage and 512MB of RAM which is standard in the category, but uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 3 processor while most competitors are using a slightly snappier Qualcomm Snapdragon.
The watch has a 320mAh battery and includes a Qi wireless charging dock. Like almost all smartwatches, the Moto 360 has a pedometer and a heart rate monitor. Some competitors such as the LG – G Watch R have built in accelerometers and gyroscopes.
The Moto 360, like most Android Wear smartwatches is still in its first iteration. I cannot wait to see what the next version holds. Although while working on this article, the price dropped on Google Play to $165, but is now back to $249.99. Prices may drop for some Android wearables once the Apple Watch is available and Android Wear manufacturers start releasing new versions of their own devices.
Apps for Android Wear
To give you some ideas about what apps can do to take advantage of Android Wear, here is a short list of apps along with how their functionality has been extended to Android Wear.
Standard Google Android Wear Apps with some of functionality of each
- Google App – set reminders, check information such as flight status, etc.
- Google Fit – track your step goals and heart rate
- Google Play Music – access and control your music
- Google Keep – make to-do lists, save photos, save voice notes
- Google Maps – turn-by-turn navigation, live traffic info
3rd Party Apps
- Invaders (Android Wear) – “The Best Space Invaders game for Android Wear!”
- Find My Phone – for when you know where your watch is but not your phone
- Runtastic – offers functionality above and beyond the watch’s basic fitness app
- Evernote – create a note with simple voice commands, check off to-dos, see calendar events
- Todoist – manage your to-do list with taps and voice
- WhatsApp – view and reply to messages by voice
- Uber – check status of your ride (cannot yet call for a ride with your watch, but surely that is coming)
- Sleep as Android – sleep cycle based alarm clock and tracker
- Aeris Wear Weather – current conditions, forecasts, and even radar
- ITTT – allows you to create custom rules to trigger events in certain situations
- LookBehind – your watch will display whatever your phone camera is pointed toward
- Wear Internet Browser – browsing is not optimal on a watch, but you can do it
For an even larger selection of Google “hand-picked” apps for Android Wear click here.
According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 6 percent of adults plan to by the Apple Watch. The percentage of men in this category outnumbered women by almost two to one. 18- to 28-year-old males gave the watch the highest “cool factor” but males in their 30s were the most likely to actually purchase one. So if your app appeals to men, uses notifications, and/or has elements that can be broken down into pieces easily digested on a small screen, then your app may be a good candidate for extension to wearables.
The Wall Street has estimated that between 10 and 32 million Apple Watches will be sold worldwide in 2015. Depending on your source, there were 720,000 or 1.2 million Android Wear watches sold in 2014. So Apple Watch is poised to become the overnight leader in wearables. Will Apple’s performance have a halo effect on the whole category, increasing general acceptance of devices on wrists? Will Android Wear be marginalized or see a lift? Time will tell, but I suspect that like Android itself, there will be people who prefer Android. So if you have apps on both platforms, you might consider extending functionality to both Apple Watch and Android Wear simultaneously.
In a few days we will discuss how you as a developer can take advantage of Android Wear. We will discuss alternatives and look at some sample code. Stay tuned. In the meanwhile, please use the comments below to share your own experiences with wearables.