What’s Next for Wearable Tech

The news out of CES last week highlights the growing profusion of wearable devices: smartwatches are the most widespread, but there are also smart glasses, earphones, bracelets, rings, and more. It’s a real “wild west” time for these devices; nobody really knows where they’re going, or what the best use cases are.

For developers, the situation is especially acute, because essentially every device is siloed right now. If you have a good idea for a wearable app, you need to write it for Pebble, rewrite it for sony_sw2Sony’s Smartwatch, again for Google Glass, and so on. It’s true whether you’re building primarily for the device itself, or even just trying to interface your existing phone app with a wearable display: each device has its own little ecosystem. Some of the more shortsighted manufacturers haven’t even opened up their devices to outside devs (I’m looking at you, Samsung).

It’s not dissimilar to the state of the phone business circa 2005. Most phones of the time supported apps, and there were even a few smartphones around, but they were all siloed in this same kind of way. If you wanted to deploy a phone app to a good-sized audience, you had to write it for Blackberry, then rewrite it for Windows Mobile, JavaME… and don’t get me started on Symbian, where Nokia couldn’t even maintain compatibility within their own product line. It was a mess.

Even within each of these platforms, there wasn’t a good, low-friction way for devs to sell and deploy their wares. The different silos may or may not have had “stores”, but those that did were all pretty small, and app discoverability and monetization was a real challenge. And again, this is mirrored in the current state of wearables: Sony’s Smartwatch pairs with Android phones, so they’ve piggybacked off the Google Play store. Pebble, on the other hand, is just opening a store of its own. Glass has a small selection of officially-sanctioned apps curated by Google, but it’s far from easy to break into, and (as of right now) you can’t charge for your apps there. And so on… it’s a mess.

The first thing that changed in the phone business, of course, was the introduction of the iPhone. Apple was the first vendor to really nail it, not just the device, but the app store too. And for the devs, it was a veritable gold rush. This is one route that the wearables market could take: one vendor could “get it right”, have a device that’s a breakaway success, and build a big enough silo to be self-sustaining. You get a definite sense that most of the current players are hoping for this kind of outcome, but don’t know how to get there.

But there’s another route, one that we’ve seen before in the phone business. I’m talking about Android, of course: although it was released over a year after the iPhone, and took another couple of years to really pick up speed, it’s become the dominant ecosystem in mobile. And it has done it in large part by not being siloed to a single vendor; its openness has unified the vast majority of phones and tablets onto a single platform. The wearables market doesn’t just need something like Android to unify it, it needs Android. And essentially all the pieces are already in place, if you know where to look…

To start with, Google already has one of the leading wearables – Glass – and it’s running full Android on board. Google has also bought one of the pioneers of the modern smartwatch era – WIMM Labs – and rumors about a forthcoming “Google Watch” have been rampant for a couple of years now. It’s not really a secret that Google is moving into wearables, but I’ve seen little analysis about the bigger picture of that move – not just about Google selling a smartwatch or Glass to the general public, but about the broader ecosystem play. So here’s how I see that playing out.

Sometime this year – most likely at I/O – Google will take the wraps off Android 5.0, let’s call it Licorice. Licorice will give Android full, native, first-party support for wearables, in much the same way that Honeycomb brought first-party tablet support to what had previously just been a phone OS. [Sure, there were Android tablets pre-Honeycomb, but they were half-baked, not-overly-successful forays into unsupported territory. Remember the original 7″ Galaxy Tab, back in 2010? That’s what the Galaxy Gear is now.]

The wearable support features introduced in Licorice will include:

  • A new screen size bucket, for screens less than 2″ in size, which will extend the lower end of the existing small-normal-large-xlarge Android screen size range. Alternatively, Google could extend their newer minimum-width-and-height resource selectors with maximum-width-and-height descriptors, but that seems clumsier to me.
  • A set of new UI conventions and development paradigms appropriate for small, glanceable displays without keyboards. Want to see a preview? Look at the Glass Development Kit (GDK) introduced last month. It’s all there, and most of it would work equally well on most any wearable, not just on Glass.
  • New low-power optimizations, quite likely in cooperation with one of the major ARM vendors. This actually already started with support for Bluetooth LE in Android 4.3.
  • Wearable-specific extensions to the Play app store, analogous to the improved tablet support that Google brought to Play in 2013.

The point here, of course, is to extend the Android phone-and-tablet ecosystem to include wearables as first-class citizens. And this will enable a whole new generation of Android wearable hardware. Glass is the forerunner, but for everyone speculating about of “the public release of Glass” or “the Google watch”… you’re thinking too small. We need to be thinking about a whole range of such devices, from a variety of manufacturers. Some will bear the Google name, but certainly not all.

I expect that the first of these devices (after the current Glass XE) will arrive at the same time as Licorice, probably also with announcements at I/O. We’re getting further into speculative territory here, but I think we can make a good conjecture from Google’s past hardware ventures – essentially, projecting Google’s known hardware tendencies into the this next realm. There are some definite patterns to the hardware Google has used to introduce other new ventures – phones, tablets, and laptops (Chromebooks) – that will likely also apply to wearables.

  1. The pioneer hardware, designed and built with Google’s close supervision, defines Google’s role in a new space. This is essentially a public hardware beta, whether or not it’s openly acknowledged as such, and is usually a bit clunky and prone to widespread criticism as “an unfinished device, for early adopters only”. Well duh.
    • Phone: G1
    • Tablet: Moto XOOM
    • Chromebook: Cr-48
    • Wearable: Glass XE
  2. The second wave is populated by other OEMs, producing variations on the original hardware, more or less independent but still running Google’s OS. This crop of devices begins the move into the mainstream, and historically, has included the early Android and ChromeOS devices from all the major manufacturers.
  3. After a year or two of this, Google weighs in again, producing a device that “sets the standard” for where the big G thinks the ecosystem should be going. The Nexus One, Nexus 7, and Chromebook Pixel all fit this description.
  4. Everyone iterates, of course, Google and OEM alike.

The first thing to notice in the Android wearable space is that we’re still in phase 1 of this progression. Glass is the only official-Android wearable device we have so far, and the Explorer program is nothing if not a public beta – we’ve got a long way to go. I think Google’s Web DNA includes a strong “release early” tendency, and that applies to hardware too.

And if other Android wearables follow the same sort of pattern, then they’re even further behind. The first “Google watch” we see is likely to be a hardware beta comparable to the G1 or Cr-48: clunky, unpolished, with just a glimmer of its true potential. As I said, it’ll probably be announced at I/O 2014 – hell, it’ll probably be given away to attendees – but don’t expect it to be an instant game-changer. Google plays a longer game than that, and wants you to be a part of the process.

Ready for another gold rush?

AFTERWORD: What about Apple?

Apple doesn’t play the same game as Google, of course, but the introduction of the iWatch is at least as eagerly anticipated. The thing is, Apple thinks different: it develops its hardware in strict secrecy, and doesn’t release until it’s been polished within an inch of its life. Compare the G1 to the original iPhone, the XOOM to the iPad, the CR-48 to the Macbook Air. A Nexus or Pixel can go toe-to-toe with its Cupertino counterpart, but that’s only after a couple of years of public hardware iteration.

The point being, Apple won’t release an iWatch until it’s good and ready. Could be anytime, could be years down the road.

The other thing about Apple is that it doesn’t tend to join a rough-and-tumble, free-for-all market like wearables are in right now. It tends to let other companies make the early mistakes, learn from them, then release a product that overcomes the widespread issues affecting the first generation. If this pattern holds, Apple might not release its iWatch for some time yet. You can bet they’re watching the space closely, though, and refining their own plans all along.

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