Google released a major update to Android Wear that adds always-on apps, WiFi support, a wrist-flipping gesture for scrolling, and emoji drawing support.
Google just released a major Android 5.1.1 update for its Android Wear smartwatch platform, and considering the huge pre-sales for the Apple Watch, it’s not a moment too soon. Even with a nine month head start over the new Apple Watch, Google’s Android Wear hardware partners sold only 70,000 watches by the end of 2014, according to an early February estimate from Canalys.
Aiming to boost the appeal of Android Wear before it’s forced to head back to the shop like Google Glass, Google has added a few welcome additions. The new version is not likely to win over the public overnight, but it’s a start.
Persistent apps in Android Wear
Android Wear now lets developers make apps persist on the display even when you drop your arm — the usual signal to blank the screen. Most Android Wear watches already offer persistent clock faces so there’s “no tapping, twisting or shaking required to see what time it is,” writes David Singleton, Director of Engineering, Android Wear, in the Google blog announcement for the Android 5.1.1 update. Now, Android Wear will let any app persist in the same way.
Google’s market research presumably shows that users value convenience over privacy and longer battery life. Singleton notes, however, that in order to save the battery, full color is used only when your gestures suggest you are looking at the watch.
Last October, Google added support for GPS and offline music, and it has now added WiFi support, letting you stray farther from your phone than a direct Bluetooth connection will permit. Whether you’re sharing the same WiFi network as your phone, and want to extend the range in a large house, or even if you’re on the other side of the world, you can get all the usual notifications and other capabilities via WiFi that were previously available via Bluetooth.
Android Wear knows
this means thumbs up
Google also added a new gesture — you can now flick your wrist to scroll the screen. In addition, by touching the screen you can “start apps and send messages immediately,” writes Singleton.
Finally, you can use your finger to draw an emoji on the screen, and Android Wear will recognize it and translate it into the correct symbol, says Google. Hundreds of emojis are said to be detectable, although we imagine that depends to some degree on one’s drawing skills.
Google’s Apple Watch problem
There are now six Android Wear watches available for sale, with most selling for $200 to $300, and soon the LG Watch Urbane will make it a lucky seven. The Urbane is arguably the most attractive Android Watch yet, with a thin profile, a narrow bezel, and a polished silver and gold finish.
Moto 360 (left) and LG Watch Urbane
(click images to enlarge)
At the end of 2014, the “clear leader” among Android Wear watches was the round-faced Motorola Moto 360, according to Canalys. The similarly round LG Watch R was also among the more popular models, and the new LG Watch Urbane is round as well. We’re likely to see more models adopt this crowd-pleasing feature as a differentiator from the squarish Apple Watch.
Android Wear has likely surpassed the 100,000 unit market by now, but that’s a fraction of what the Apple Watch has already sold. According to an April 12 report by Slice Intelligence, Apple sold over a million Apple Watches on pre-order the very first day. An April 16 report from analyst Carl Howe says Apple sold out its initial production run in its first two weeks. He estimates that this translates into 3 million units sold, generating revenues of over $2 billion.
Even if the estimates are true, there’s no guarantee that sales of the relatively pricey ($350 to $550) Apple Watch will continue at that rate. The watch is still largely untested in the market, so word-of-mouth sales are far from guaranteed. Still, this is clearly the biggest Apple success story since the iPad.
It will be interesting to see where Google goes with its Android Wear hardware guidelines. Specs have begun to creep upwards but most of the watches closely follow the same script: a dual-core, 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400, 512MB RAM, 4GB of eMMC flash, and a 1.63-inch, 320 x 320 AMOLED touchscreen. Most integrate Bluetooth 4.0, a micro-USB port, a mic, sensors, and voice control. Even with this modest profile, however, Google and its partners have struggled to keep battery life under control.
Chrome OS gets updated to 42, as Chromebook interest soars
If things are a bit slow on the Android Wear front, Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS is still kicking butt in the low-cost laptop and netbook market. On April 19 Google released Chrome OS 42, letting Chromebook users update their computers with a new Android 5.0-like Material Design look and feel with Google Voice.
The new features were tipped earlier this month when Google revealed a beta Chrome Launcher 2.0 featuring the new UI. At the time, Google also announced an Asus Chromebit HDMI stick running Chrome OS, plus four new low-cost Chromebooks. In addition, it opened its Android-to-Chrome OS app porting technology to the public.