Some stomachs must have been turning at the Googleplex when Apple Watch sales estimates started rolling in last month.
Although Apple hasn’t revealed any official sales numbers–and says it doesn’t plan to–several unofficial estimates claim that Apple has at least cracked the 1 million sales mark. Google’s Android Wear platform only shipped 720,000 units in all of 2014, according to Canalys.
Just as it did with smartphones and tablets, Apple has essentially created the smartwatch market. But don’t write off Android Wear just yet. Through a series of seemingly low-key changes, Google is quietly positioning itself for a stronger second act.
A few weeks ago, Google announced Android Wear 5.1.1, and while the version number doesn’t suggest major improvements, the update will make third-party apps much more useful.
One notable change extends Android Wear’s always-on display capabilities to third-party apps, so they can leave information on the screen in a low-power, black-and-white mode. Prior to the update, Android Wear would always revert to the clock screen after a few seconds of inactivity, regardless of what you were doing.
“With the new always-on feature, we can bring this hands-free experience to the next level,” says Benedikt Lehnert, chief design officer for the task management app Wunderlist. “Simply select your grocery list and have it visible the entire time you’re shopping. No need to constantly touch the screen or move your wrist, so you can focus on juggling all the goodies you want to buy.”
Google will also make it easier to open smartwatch apps in the first place with a launcher that users can open by tapping on the main screen. When Android Wear first launched, Google seemed to deliberately hide the launcher, preferring that app makers focus on actionable notifications. But developers say Google may have gotten ahead of itself with that plan.
“My guess is they went a bit too fast going notification-only, and they found users are confused by the lack of structure,” says Q42 developer Taco Ekkel, who created an app for controlling Philips Hue lightbulbs. “The notification-instead-of-apps model is the future, but people (both users and many app developers) need time to get there.”
In the meantime, the launcher will give users easier access to functions that might not come up through notifications alone. Aaron Sarazan, who leads Android development for the personal finance app Level Money, says notifications are great for showing a record of recent transactions, but not so much for letting users look up how much they can spend. “Just by virtue of removing the number of taps to get to the app list, that helps a lot,” he says.
Google’s original vision for Android Wear had little to do with launching apps on your wrist. Instead, Wear was supposed to deliver information in just the right context, either through app notifications or cards from Google Now.
It was the right idea, but the execution was flawed. In many cases, Google Now can be useless (as in every time it offers directions back to work from your lunch break), creepy (like when it reminds you of recent Google searches), or just annoying (like when it pesters you with updates from a site you visited once). Turn off enough of the things that bother you about Google Now, and you may not be left with much. This in turn puts undue pressure on notifications, which themselves can be bothersome without careful pruning.
“We’ve already seen too many apps overload users with the same notifications they would receive on their phones,” says Wunderlist’s Lehnert. “The real benefit of smartwatches lies in fast interactions and context awareness that intelligently connect with key services, to send data to your watch in the right moment, and at the right time.”
Fortunately, Google has come up with a better approach: Instead of making third-party apps rely on notifications, they can just create their own Google Now cards. For instance, a card from OpenTable can let you pay your bill at the end of a meal, and a card from RunKeeper can provide an update on your fitness goals partway through the day.
This may be the best of both worlds, offering more sources of contextual information without burying users in a pile of notifications.
Even as Google backtracks on some of its original ideas for Android Wear, it’s also taking a step forward by opening up more voice commands to third-party apps.
At launch, users couldn’t do much more than launch apps by voice and issue a handful of generic commands, such as taking a note and viewing fitness data. But with new “Custom Voice Actions,” apps will be able to get a lot more specific. For instance, users can tell Google to start playing NPR, find nearby open houses on Zillow, or bring up showtimes on Flixster.
Before Google announced this feature, Level Money’s Sarazan said this was exactly the kind of thing he was hoping for from Android Wear (though he imagined the controls being available by touch instead of voice). “I wanted to create an entry in the launcher for our transaction list, and an entry for our spendable view, and I actually wasn’t allowed to do that by the system . . . So I’m hoping we start to see them open up the launcher more to different branches of each app,” he says.
While these voice commands aren’t part of Android Wear yet, that’s clearly going to change. On the developer site where app makers can express interest in the program, Google asks if they have a relevant Wear app for the use case they have in mind.
Despite these improvements, Android Wear is still held back by the fact that it only works with Android phones. With the average Android phone costing less than $300, and smartwatch prices starting at $200, chances are that many Android users aren’t going to bother with a smartwatch anytime soon. Meanwhile, studies have shown that iPhone users tend to be younger and more affluent, suggesting that they have more money to spend on smartwatches. Google likely realizes that it can’t ignore this group, which is why we’ve seen so many rumors of Android Wear support coming to iOS.
When I first saw these reports, I wasn’t sure how Android Wear would work with an iPhone. Google’s platform was so deeply tied to the actionable notifications built into Android phones, a simple port to iOS seemed impossible. But considering everything that Google has done lately, it’s clear that many of the pieces are in place.
Google Now, for instance, is already available for iOS, and while the new third-party integrations are currently Android-only, it’s possible that this could change in the future. The same could be true for Google’s Custom Voice Actions.
As for standalone apps, Level Money’s Sarazan says getting them to work with a paired iPhone probably wouldn’t require much work, especially if Google provides an API to forward data to the watch over Bluetooth. “Maybe it would have to use a different Bluetooth protocol, but that would probably be trivial for the end developer,” he says. Between standalone apps, Google Now, and voice actions, Android Wear might not even need actionable notifications to feel like a capable platform.
In any case, Google has time to get it right. The smartwatch industry is still young, and while the Apple Watch is getting most of the attention, the developers I spoke with aren’t walking away from Android Wear anytime soon. With better software and a wider potential user base, Google’s smartwatch platform still stands a fighting chance.