Google (GOOG) today announced a new release of Android Wear, the operating system for Android smartwatches. And some big advances allow it to challenge Apple (AAPL) for the title of most usable watch. They include:
- Previously, users could leave the watch display always on so they didn't need to take any action to see the time. Now consumers will be also be able to set an app to keep displaying for as long as they want. For example, you won't have to keep reopening a navigation app after every time you dropped your arm.
- Smartwatches have depended on a paired smartphone to perform many of their functions. That meant carrying two devices. With the newest version of Android Wear, you can leave the phone behind anytime a Wi-Fi connection is available, if you have a watch that also has built-in Wi-Fi. The watch uses a local connection to access the phone over the Internet. So, your phone can stay someplace secure, like your home, and remain plugged in to a charger so it doesn't run out of power.
- A new low-power display mode can reduce battery drain when you're not actively using the watch.
- A new gesture interface lets you flick your wrist outward or inward to scroll through several screens to check news, notifications and other blocks of information.
- You can respond to messages by drawing an emoji on the screen and having it translated to the right character to be sent by text or message.
The LG Watch Urbane is the first device that will get the updated software. All the other six Android Wear watches should receive the update "over the next few weeks," according to Google.
Given the initial sales of the Apple watch and buzz around it, Google needed to do something to capture some attention. As Apple pushed back its smartwatch's shipping dates, it left an opening -- which Google took.
Apple has promoted its watch as a luxury item via restricted sales channels that can provide heavy personal attention. But some still perceive the product's interface as complicated. Google would have difficulty winning a war of luxury perception, but by focusing on usability and practicality, it could get an advantage in the broader mass market.