Android Wear, and smartwatches at large, were pitched to us with the promise of their becoming the indispensable "second screen" to our smartphones. Notifications, voice communication, smart home integration, highly contextual information and alerts - smartwatches were, in theory, the companion that could give us all the simple things that necessitated taking out our smartphone, but didn't actually require a large screen or access to a keyboard to accomplish.
Android Wear is coming up on its second birthday, and the decreasing number of compelling new Wear apps we see each month that aren't watch faces has actually led to us slowing the regular publication of our "new Wear apps and watch faces" series. So many of the watch faces, too, are extremely derivative or impractical, that there really isn't much worth showcasing these days. And watch faces really only can do so much outside provide something nice to look at.
When someone asks me if they should buy an Android Wear device, I always answer with something along the lines of, "not if you actually expect to get your money's worth." The desirable smartwatches are all generally $250+, the cost of a decent entry-level smartphone these days. The inevitable next question is "what does it actually do better than a phone?" My stock response generally focuses on the ability to swipe away low-priority notifications without pulling out your phone, the ability to voice-dictate an SMS or text on major messaging platforms, media controls (when they work), track your steps, and the ability to perform simple voice commands or queries. And, of course, to look neat.
And the responses I receive each and every time? Either "but a smartphone already does that" or "but is it actually better at those things than my phone?" And the answer to the latter is plainly no. A phone allows you to type responses to messages. A phone allows you to see more text in a notification, or to expand it into the app for a complete view. A phone supports more voice commands and full web searches. A phone can track your steps. A phone - or often even your headphones - has media controls. The expense of the phone is that... you have to pull out your phone, but at least most phones can be used with one hand - try that with a smartwatch (Android Wear's gesture controls are laughably absurd).
Still, I admit fully and with respect for what smartwatches have achieved that there are, indeed, situations where a smartwatch's whole "being attached to your wrist" aspect makes for quicker and more convenient interactions than a smartphone. But those situations pop up only occasionally - not even every day for me - or tend to fit rather specific or niche applications that are not going to be common among mainstream users.
For example, I read of one person who claimed that their Moto 360 had easily been worth its purchase price, because this person received hundreds of messages a day and constantly pulling out his phone to check them was a major hassle. The Moto 360 allowed him to swipe away low-priority messages with a quick glance when his hands were free. This sounds useful, and I can understand why someone would want this. But this isn't a typical case - this person's Wear device is basically serving as a tool that serves one rather specific purpose, and that purpose is basically being a wrist-mounted pager.
And so what we find is people, more often than not, having to find a use case for Wear devices, or to essentially relegate them to the status of novelties. And there's nothing wrong with this! I think smartwatches may well have their place in a niche market. I'm not saying they're doomed. But smartwatches simply do not fit into the lifestyles and workflows of most people, but rather are most commonly evangelized as tools that, used appropriately, can be effective at accomplishing specific tasks for specific users in particular situations.
For devices idealized by Google as the future ubiquitous second screen to our smartphones, this is not an especially encouraging outcome. Smartphones can accomplish a great many things, but their compelling reasons for existence to everyday consumers - wireless communication, access to the web, creation and consumption of media - were clear in even their cruder forms. While the world of content and platforms had not necessarily coalesced around smartphones until Apple entered the fray, earlier smartphones had a thriving community and fairly large user base before the iPhone landed, and many desirable smartphone features were slowly bleeding into feature-phones, too.
But the smartphone's end game was clear: to bring traditional phone functions, multi-platform communication, the web, and rich multimedia consumption and creation to your pocket. There was a directive in place, a set of goal posts that were defined. That less predictable changes - apps, mobile web pages, advanced data connectivity, a focus on cameras, and advances in the semiconductor industry - are how we achieved these things is a separate discussion. The notion of a computer in your pocket that could last basically all day was largely scoffed at early on because the underlying technology made the experience suboptimal, not because the concept itself was especially questionable.
In an ideal world, what does a smartwatch aspire to be that a smartphone is not? That, I think, is the ultimate question. The two categories all but completely overlap, and while the smartphone covers essentially the entire gamut of smartwatch functionality, the smartwatch has only a fraction of the power our phones do. Some of these limitations, too, especially the small display size, are inherently a problem of the product's design philosophy and, frankly, human visual acuity. A smartwatch's goal in life seems to be, at this point, "be slightly more convenient than a smartphone in some ways in some situations."
That Android Wear is not even yet especially good at this should underline that even this modest-sounding goal is proving quite hard to achieve. Are smartwatches useless? No, I would not go quite that far - I think a good number of people may even find them quite truly useful. But Android Wear has marketed itself on a vision: that added bit of "just works" convenience in our lives designed to reduce the annoyance (a questionable framing) of our ever-present smartphones. But a smartwatch is its own annoyance: another gadget to charge every day or two, another accessory to ensure remains connected to your phone, and another source of potential bugs and frustration. All of which I find to be nuisances I regularly encounter with Wear.
Though, even if Android Wear worked perfectly as it was designed, even if my watch's battery lasted a week, and the Bluetooth range was a hundred yards instead of the nearest wall, I don't really know that I'd feel more compelled to wear my smartwatch. I find myself going days at a time without my Huawei Watch lately, and the only thing I feel myself missing about it is the extra weight on my wrist. Perhaps Google will truly wow us with new Wear features and applications this year, but it seems hard to imagine what could seriously invigorate a platform whose limitations remain a far greater point of discussion than its benefits.