Who needs a smartwatch?
Imagine: it has just gone 6pm. You’re on the way home. And as you try to squeeze into a tiny space by the door of the tube carriage, an announcement rings out: ‘This line is currently suffering from major delays’.
On occasions like this, a natural reaction is to reach for my phone. A quick swipe right on the Nexus 5 homescreen and Google Now will appear with details about the delay, alternative routes to take, when I can expect to get home and whether it’s going to be quicker by train, bus or walking. It definitely wasn’t going to be the latter.
Just before pressing the standby button something else catches my eye in Google Now. There’s a news story about work taking place on the overground train line I take home every evening. Great. There’s also a preview of the 20/20 World Cup that I’ve been reading about over the last couple of weeks and suggestions of food place near work I never knew existed.
In that very small space of time, I had all of this information that I didn’t for, and it was actually really useful. This is exactly what Google Now is about. Like your own pocket-sized digital assistant, it knows what you want before you even think about it and more. It’s scary how well it works.
An intro to Android Wear
So why bring this up now? Smartwatches are the reason. Specifically, the announcement of Google’s Android Wear platform, which aims to rapidly push the development of wrist-worn devices that people might actually want to own. Wearables, and specifically smartwatches, have gathered so much momentum in the past year - largely based on a rumoured Apple watch that Apple may or may not even make.
I’ve seen and played with plenty of them. The Samsung Galaxy Gear, the ZTE BlueWatch, the Pebble. Even Archos has about five of them. None of those companies have managed to successfully sell me the idea that looking at my wrist for information is better than simply reaching into my pocket and taking out my phone.
I don’t want to make calls from a watch, I don’t want to take pictures or have the most awkward Real Racing 3 session of my life on one. These are all things I am more than happy to do from my phone, and I'm sure I am not in the minority here.
Love them or hate them, smartwatches are here to stay at least for the foreseeable future. So what’s the solution to actually make smartwatches a good idea? Until Apple makes one, I’m looking at Google Now to give the wrist-worn devices real appeal.
The birth of Google Now
When Google announced Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, its Now intelligent information system with improved voice search was pegged as a rival for Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Since then, it has transformed into something so much more sophisticated.
If you are sensitive to the idea of a company tapping into all of your data, you are probably not going to like how it all works. Google Now gets its brains from your web browsing and location sharing information. Both can be turned on and off if you don't want to share everything with Google.
You can then choose to add 'cards' dedicated to things like travel, sport, films and food. It sounds very general but once you start feeding Google Now information it recognises patterns, behaviours and habits. Google has made regular updates to Now, and as a result it has become a more polished and refined service in a very short space of time.
Google places a lot of the emphasis on the voice search aspect of Google Now and the early videos of Android Wear in action suggest saying ‘Ok Google’ will play a big part with how it wants you use an Android smartwatch. I’d like to think that its interface is what will make it so great to use as part of a watch.
Why Now might work on a watch
The card-based UI is a perfect fit for a small, watch-size screen. I could actually picture standing at the bus stop glancing down to see that my bus is five minutes away, or seeing I have a meeting in an hour. Finding out the final score of a football match without having to open an app or trying to get the BBC Sport website to refresh would work nicely on a watch too.
Having a sleek interface and intelligent software is only part of the solution. The Android smartwatch needs to look good as well. If you are spending the same kind of money it costs to own a designer timepiece, an Android Wear watch still needs to be able to make a fashion statement. That’s why it’s good to hear that Google is adopting the same approach as it is with Google Glass, working with watch designers to make sure they don’t lose the essence of what it is to want to wear and own a watch in the first place.
If Google and its partners like Motorola and LG can get the balance of software and design right, there’s real potential for a great device here. Google Now is at a stage where the information it generates is really beneficial to the user, and it’s rapidly getting better. With a tagline that reads, ‘Just the right information at the right time’ it seems fitting that Google Now should be at the heart of the Android smartwatch revolution.
Next, read our impressions of the Samsung Gear Fit smartwatch