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A few days with Android Wear

Android Wear has had plenty of coverage, some of it good, some of it less enthusiastic. The commentary I’ve found most interesting has been around the approach Google has taken of making the wrist a place to get alerts, rather than somewhere which either runs apps or acts as an adjunct to the sensors your phone already contains.
I’m primarily an iPhone user, but this commentary, plus the launch of Android Wear and Android L, made me think it was time to look again at Android Wear. So I bought a Samsung Gear Live watch, and I’ve been playing around with it for about a week.

Alerts which matter

One of the selling points of Wear is the ability of apps – and particularly Google Now – to deliver information when you need it preemptively. You’re not supposed to have to ask Google when the next bus is: it’s supposed to spot the fact you’re by a bus stop and tell you when the next one will arrive.

This is fine in theory, but it depends on Google knowing an awful lot about you and the kind of behaviour you exhibit on a daily basis. It also depends on Google being smart about how your behaviour changes, learning to ignore the odd occasion when you visit a different place so it doesn’t assume you’re interested in travel information to that location all the time.

Unfortunately, Google Now isn’t particularly finely tuned yet. For example, in common with most people I don’t drive everywhere. Neither do I get the bus everywhere. Yet Google forces me to choose between public transport routes or driving routes, and doesn’t learn which I use for what kind of journey. I don’t take the car to work, ever; but this doesn’t mean I get the tube for every journey, so there’s no point pre-emptively suggesting a leaving time for a trip based on that when it’s something I’d always drive to.

This kind of lack of granularity shows up on Android Wear particularly badly, because it puts alerts and what the machine knows about you front and centre. In theory, Google Now ought to get better and better the more you use it. In practice, I’m yet to see a major difference in how good its predictions are.

Keeping the phone in the pocket

However, using Android Wear has had one side-effect which I didn’t expect: it’s helped me to stay “present” in more situations and stop checking my phone for “urgent” stuff. Knowing that if something happens, there will be a little buzz on my wrist helps to avoid the feeling that you’ve got to get your phone out of your pocket “just in case”.

It’s also much, much less intrusive in social situations. Glancing at your wrist for a second to check an alert lets you stay more present in the conversation which is happening around you than ferreting around in your pocket, dragging out your phone, switching it on, checking whatever and putting it back. And of course with the phone, you’ve got the temptation to keep it on the table in front of you, glance at it, maybe see what Twitter is talking about… all of which breaks the social contact you’re having in the real world.

Where does this go next?

Android Wear is interesting, and so far I’ve really enjoyed using it. It, combined with Android L, is pretty-much an even match with the iPhone for usability at the moment, although from my experience of iOS 8 so far I’d say the iPhone will take a leap ahead of it again when it’s released.

However, using it has also made me hungry to see what Apple could do with a wrist-based wearable product. Ever since Tim Cook mentioned the wrist was “interesting” to the company, everyone’s assumed Apple will make an iWatch. But what you have on your wrist doesn’t have to be a watch: the fact you have two wrists means there’s space for two devices. Perhaps on the right you could wear something like Android Wear, designed to keep your phone in the pocket, while on the other, a smaller screenless device keeps a constant check on your heart rate, steps, and more. Or maybe it will be combined into a single wearable (which you have to charge every day).

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