Android Wear is for notifications not for "full-fledged" apps, is that expected or disappointing?
Google has a clear vision for what it wants with Android Wear, and it is being very very clear in its message to developers on this point. The first round of Android wearables are not aiming to be complete smartwatches in the sense that many would hope they would be. Rather, these are planned to be companion devices which are mainly used for notifications, and don't really offer much as far as advanced functionality.
Google put out a video on "What Developers Need to Know" via Mashable's Ask a Dev YouTube channel, and explained the number one focus of Android Wear: simplicity. Android Engineer Sagar Seth gives some design tips, like using landscape images is the best practice, all notifications should have an image in the background, and to make good use of Google Now voice commands. He also reiterates the core ideas that Android Wear devices should be focused on notifications and glanceable information which requires little to no interaction. He really drives this home by saying, "remember one thing: it's not a full-fledged application sitting on the wearable itself, it is just notifications. It is making the information available when you need it to be."
This has been a recurring theme that Google has tried to impress upon developers, but one that may prove troublesome for users once the devices actually make it to market. Many users like the idea of a true smartwatch, one that can function independently of a smartphone, and perform higher-level tasks (usually through voice command). So far, it has become clear that the current level of technology that exists can't really offer that sort of experience without some major compromises in size and battery life.
It seems logical that the current smartwatch platforms are aiming to reach that space eventually, but we aren't there yet; and, it is unclear when we'll have the technology to allow for that sort of functionality either. It's easy enough to say that it is understandable that Google is attempting to make the best experience possible with the technology available. We've seen what happens when wearables try to do too much, like the Neptune Pine, which is essentially a mini smartphone on your wrist. When manufacturers try to offer "full-fledged applications" on a smartwatch, it usually ends badly, because the screen is too small, the processor too slow, and the battery too small.
The limitations of current wearables is more of a necessity than a choice, but that doesn't always make it easy to accept. We all still have the dream of having something on our wrists that can act like the Star Trek computer or the smartwatch that Penny wore in Inspector Gadget, or even the AI from last year's Her. The perfect wearable is a device that can help us do anything we want and doesn't break the flow of your life. There is definitely a possibility that Android Wear could do exactly that. The voice commands of Google Now can already do a huge amount, and Google is adding more and more functionality all the time, but it isn't quite good enough to not break the flow of life.
The day is undoubtedly coming when those Sci-Fi gadgets will be a reality, but it isn't here yet. It is coming quite close to being a reality on our smartphones though. The growing competition between Google Now, Siri, and soon Cortana has been pushing forward the voice command/voice assistant piece of the pie that is integral to the dream of what a smartwatch should be. Of course, anyone who has used Google Now or Siri, or watched the not-so-perfect demo of Cortana last week understands that even that piece of the pie isn't fully baked just yet.
Voice assistants are getting better and better at dealing with natural language and more advanced interactions, but even the basic voice recognition still has hiccups. They are getting better at understanding complex words, context, and unusual names, but there are still far too many times when voice command simply doesn't work unless you try it a few times. And, those issues can and will happen in controlled environments with little background noise (like the stage of a media event), so they will only be exacerbated by attempts made in noisy outdoor spaces in which wearables are most likely to be used. These issues are getting to be fewer and fewer, but they are still there and they do take you out of what you're doing in order to wrestle with your tech for a bit.
Of course, a device that is primarily used for notifications also has inherent limitations. The good thing is that the majority of information that flows through our current smartphones can be turned into a notification of some sort. So, the breadth of information that can be pushed to a smartwatch will similarly be quite broad. The videos we saw for the Android Wear preview show the wide range that Google has in mind, but the idea of the main use case being notifications makes it feel like it won't be a truly smartwatch. The voice interactions should be simple enough and limited enough that there may not be too much trouble there, either, assuming the hardware is built with good enough microphones. The trouble comes in those limitations though.
There will likely be instances when it would seem reasonable for whatever interaction is needed to deal with a notification, or follow-up on a notification to be handled on the smartwatch itself, but it is unclear right now if Android Wear will be able to do that. We have seen turn-by-turn navigation handled on the watches, which is one of the main questions, so that's okay. And, we've seen developers like Pocket already create APIs to allow for more advanced interactions with notifications on Android Wear devices. So, the beginnings are there to allow for more advanced functionality, but obviously Google would like developers to stay away from that as much as possible, at least for now.
At the end of the day, it seems as though the aim for Android Wear (at least in Google's view) is to essentially offload the notification tray from your phone to your wrist. There is a lot that can be done in a notification tray, and it will also be a nice benefit that a smartwatch could easily help to increase your phone's battery life by reducing the number of times you need to turn on the display. The biggest limiting factor with most of our mobile devices these days is battery life, so sharing the load is always a good thing, like offloading media consumption or gaming onto a tablet to help conserve smartphone life.
But, all of the real work will still be done by your smartphone, not your smartwatch, which immediately makes that watch less smart. Maybe the question shouldn't be concerned with when smartwatches will be able to be independent devices, but if we really need them to be. Just because a smartwatch isn't a standalone device shouldn't really make much difference if you've got a smartphone anyway, and increasingly it is the standard to have a smartphone. Smartphones have reached a 68% penetration rate in the U.S. and are over 50% in most of the developed world. Smartwatches are not going to be devices that are aimed at emerging markets, they are a luxury item right now.
And, part of that luxury is knowing that you have a smart ecosystem of devices, so the smartwatch doesn't need to do everything. It would be nice, but it is nowhere near necessary just yet. Of course, necessity has almost never had any bearing on desire, and we want the future to happen right now. We don't want to have to deal with growing pains of a new product market. Though, given how quickly the rest of the mobile market has evolved, we may not have to wait too long before our dream devices become reality.