Google just announced its first real foray into the frenzied fray of the smartwatch world: Android Wear. That's an accurate name for a wearable, Android-powered device, sure, but it's also a little misleading. This is a Google Now watch. And that's excellent news.
While the name says Android, Google's more-than-a-little-optimistic teaser trailer for Wear screams Google Now. The voice control, the cards, the "don't ask; we already know" functionality. All familiar to folks who've used one of the best parts of Android:
Why is that such a welcome approach? Because it could push smartwatches beyond the territory of ubernerds who need to know what is going on at literally every second. It could make them genuinely useful for everyone.
Instead of a glut of phone notifications just waiting to be dismissed, Android Wear promises a constant, Google Now-ish stream of relevant information you can opt into with a flick of the wrist. Context cards just waiting to be called upon at a glance, all wired into the ever-improving service Google has already been running for years. Heading to the office? Your watch tells you what traffic's like. Favorite football team headed into overtime? Your watch feeds you scoring updates. All without ever even having to ask.
Hypothetically, anyone could provide that service. But only Google already does, and does it well. It has your emails, your pictures, it knows where you live, where you work, how you get home, the tracking number from yesterday's Amazon order. Google Now knows more about you than any other service ever will. Sure it a little creepy. But it's what will make Android Now smartwatches an unstoppable force.
Yes, Samsung's already taken like three different swings (and misses) at this idea. Entrants like Razer and Qualcomm have been zooming in from left field. Pebble has already taken two shots and put out a practically perfect piece of hardware. It doesn't matter. Google's late to this game, but by placing its bets on Now, it's bringing in a ringer. Google Now's there-when-you-need-it superpowers are something not even Apple can match.
And it's going to be on some glorious devices.
Handing off the hardware
While Pebble got it right with the Steel, no one else has made a smartwatch you'd actually want to wear yet. Android Now already seems to be changing that equation. Though it's not coming from Google itself.
Now that Google's gotten rid of Motorola, it seems to have no intentions of getting back to hardware in a serious way. While Google still owns what was a promising smartwatch manufacturer, the release of an SDK months before Google I/O harkens back to Google's roots of leaving the hardware to someone else. Now, especially since it's gotten rid of Motorola, Google seems content to focus on creating the best software experience instead of potentially alienating partners (like, say, Samsung).
That makes complete sense; it's a strategy with renewed importance. Way back when, Google's openness to different hardware options was one of its strongest weapons for shoving Android into the emerging world of smartphones. Hardware was a means to an end, that end being to grow Android into something ubiquitous, resilient, and good.
The plan of action remains the same, with a small shift in focus. Hardware companies are still provided software to run on their devices, but this time Google gets something a little different in return: more apps and services that plug into Google Now. That means not only do you get a better Google Now—the more it knows about you, the better it can automagically feed you information—you get it devices as gorgeous as the Motorola 360.
Meanwhile it also means more data for Google, more information to mold into Google Now cards and, of course, into targeted ads. If all goes according to plan, it's easy to see how this forms an almost perfect feedback loop. Google Now makes your smartwatch better, and your smartwatch bolsters Google Now in return. All the pieces are in place, and there's just one question left:
Are we there yet?
The beautiful smartwatch future that Google is pitching with the release of its Android Wear SDK feels a little like fantasy, but not so far-fetched that you can't believe it. Anyone who uses Google Now regularly is familiar with that particular mix of emotions. It's not always perfect, but it's right just enough that you can't quite shake the notion that it's almost there. Now take that feeling and put it on your wrist.
It lacks polish, sure, but no more so than the myriad failed smartwatch solutions out there. If Google's Android Wear watches can just nail the basics of being a good watch, looking half-decent, and working with most (Android) devices, they'll already be head and shoulders above most of the competition. Then consider that Google Now has the ability to improve—improvement is almost inevitable—in ways that the Pebble or the Tizen-toting Gear 2 could hardly dream of. Google has already been beating this drum for years.
Android Wear looks like it has ample shortcomings, like the apparent absence of any dedicated or unique fitness-tracking abilities. That same deficiency robbed the Pebble Steel of some of its potential, and it's an angle that Apple is all but certain to hit, hard. And it's not quite clear yet the degree a flood of apps will help improve the system versus cluttering it.
But for a first foray onto wrists, Google is coming in strong. It's leaving the hardware to people that know it, and putting its most futuristic feature—the all-knowing Google Now—front and center. It may not be the smartwatch of your dreams, but it's way closer than anyone else has come so far.