Will Google push Android or Google Now for wearables?
When we went through the 2014 outlook for Android, one of the biggest questions looming on the horizon wasn't what was going to happen, but rather when it would all start. We knew that Android would be making the move to smartwatches and other wearables this year; and, we knew that Google would be starting the work to get developers on board and to optimize the platform for the super small screen. Now we know that the Android SDK for wearables will be released in just two weeks from now, and that helps to sort out when we should start seeing actual Android devices released with full Google services.
There have been rumors of multiple companies working on wearables including LG, HTC, and Motorola in addition to those that already have wearables on the market like Samsung and Sony. But, it seems reasonable to assume that the first wearable to come with Google certified Play services and Android optimized for wearable devices (we're not talking about the wearables that we've seen which are essentially smartphones strapped to your wrist) is most likely to come directly from Google itself.
It is pretty safe to assume at this point that the rumors about Google having its own smartwatch are likely true. That doesn't mean all of the rumors about the device are true, but we are going to take it as a given that a Google branded smartwatch does exist. The rest of the details aren't as easy to accept as fact. There have been rumors that LG will be manufacturing the first Google smartwatch, and that Motorola is separately developing its own Android smartwatch. We also have absolutely no idea whether the smartwatch will fall into the Nexus hardware line (there are reasons to believe not), but we're fans of the Nexus brand, so we will occasionally be calling Google's smartwatch a Nexus device.
The other point to consider is the rumors about when the Nexus watch will be released. The rumors originally pointed towards an October 2013 announcement for the Google smartwatch, but obviously that never happened. More recent rumors have been indicating that Google could announce its smartwatch at Google I/O this year. Others say Google would be sticking with the strategy it took up last year in not announcing new hardware at Google I/O, and would unveil its smartwatch sometime soon after the developer conference, perhaps even at the same time as the rumored Nexus 8. This year's Google I/O is scheduled for the end of June, specifically the 25th and 26th, which would put the most likely time for the announcement of the Nexus smartwatch sometime in early July.
However, it should be noted that there was a report from The Wall Street Journal back in October that claimed Google would be ramping up production on its smartwatch "within months". If those rumors were accurate, Google could be mass-producing its smartwatch right now. Given that the SDK is planned to drop in just a couple weeks, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Google would be announcing its smartwatch relatively soon as well. Keep in mind that one of the main aims of the Nexus project is to offer a developer reference device at a low cost. Android needs a developer reference smartwatch, because there is only so much that can be done with an SDK emulator.
While the Nexus brand does have ties to the developer community (and while we have been referring to it as such), there is no guarantee that the Google smartwatch would carry the Nexus branding at all. The rumors are that Google is winding down the Nexus program with only the Nexus 6, Nexus 8, a new Nexus 10 and perhaps a Nexus TV to be the last devices in the line-up before Google switches to Google Play edition devices only. It would be odd to release a device in a new product category under the Nexus brand only to kill off that brand. In the end though, it does seem more likely that Google would hold back on the hardware a bit.
Google's hardware offerings have begun to attract more attention, and they are getting wider commercial releases. If there were to be a Google smartwatch coming soon, Google would want it to really be just for developers, but it would be difficult to make that happen. Rather than struggle with media and early adopter reviews of a developer reference device, it would make more sense for Google to wait a couple more months for the real thing and maybe just seed some reference devices in the background. It would lead to leaks, but that's not necessarily a bad thing (especially for those of us who want to get inside info on this stuff). At that point, the Google watch could act both as a developer reference device and as the flagship product in the coming wave of Android smartwatches.
Of course, just because Google is getting ready to release an SDK, and it has its own smartwatch in the works doesn't exactly point to a larger "wave" of smartwatches. Really, Google's part in this equation is part of the building process. Google is merely preparing the ecosystem, and one thing that we'll have to watch closely is in what Android looks like with the wearables SDK, more specifically in what version of Android the SDK features. Recent reports have indicated that Google Glass will be getting the Android 4.4 KitKat update soon enough, and this also should help us to understand Google's plans. Android is already built with responsive design principles, meaning it can adapt to any display. Of course, adapting and being optimized are two very different things as we all learned when Android was first forced onto tablets by eager manufacturers. More than likely, Android itself will need to have its UI optimized for such small screens.
We have been assuming that Google would likely be introducing Android 5.0 along with its smartwatch, because the major number shift is more likely to come with the UI optimized for those screens (and maybe TVs as well), and UI overhauls have tended to be the main factor in a major version number change for Android. But, as yet it is still unclear if that really is the plan. If we see features in the SDK that don't yet exist in Android, that would be a smoking gun, but we'll have to wait on that.
Regardless if Android 5.0 is on the horizon, it is clear that Google has been working towards this for a while. A big part of the Android 4.4 update was better memory management for better performance on lower-spec hardware. This is a feature that serves two very important purposes for Google. First, it incentivizes manufacturers to bring the KitKat update to devices designed for emerging markets. And second, it allows Android to be smoother on wearables which tend to have lower specs simply because of size and cost constraints. So, in this respect, Android is ready to make the move, it just needs an optimized UI. And, that's where things get interesting, because there are two different ways to go to get an optimized UI for Android: through the system or through Google.
Google may not even need to push towards Android 5.0. As we've already talked about, the system itself is basically ready for wearables. The only things needed are optimized apps and an optimized UI, and the latter doesn't necessarily need to come from a major version change. Keep in mind that Google has been putting much more effort into the Google Play side of things than the Android system itself. So, a sly way to delay the non-Google Android wearable onslaught would be to delay optimizing the system UI itself, and opt instead to offer the wearable optimized UI through Google Now.
There have been various rumors that point to Google Now as being something of a hub for the Android smartwatch UI, which does make sense on a few levels. Firstly, as we've mentioned a number of times, voice control is likely to be one of the main forms of interacting with a smartwatch. Smaller screens make touch input more difficult, but voice commands should still work well and Google Now can do quite a bit with just voice commands. Secondly, the card UI that has been slowly becoming ubiquitous in Android and Google Now is tailor made to scale to smaller devices, as evidence in the card UI of Google Glass. And lastly, it would mean that Google doesn't necessarily need to redesign or even optimize Android for wearables, because of the new Google Now Launcher.
The Google Now Launcher is currently only available on Nexus devices and Google Play edition devices, but Google could change that relatively easily and allow the launcher to be compatible with a much wider set of devices. On wearables, you might not even need much more than Google Now, a notifications area, and an app tray, because more expansive functionality doesn't really work so well on wearables anyway. Also, Google might not bother much with optimizing the system UI itself, because for "stock" Android wearables, Google Now could be the launcher, and other manufacturers would likely create custom UIs anyway.
Since we have only heard rumors about Android 4.5 being on the menu for Google I/O and the Nexus 8 this summer, that might mean Android 5.0 won't be seen until later this year, if it is released this year at all. This is a small, but crucial detail in this whole endeavor because the timeline is looking to be just as compressed as last year. In 2013, Google released the Nexus 7 and Android 4.3 in late July, then followed up with Android 4.4 and the Nexus 5 at the end of October. But, despite the nickname change, KitKat was still just an incremental update. In fact, Google hasn't released a full version update since 2011, when it released both Android 3.0 Honeycomb and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, though, Google is trying hard to forget Honeycomb ever happened,
The trouble is in how the timing would work this year. It is certainly possible that Google could release its smartwatch alongside the Nexus 8 and maybe even Google Glass this summer with Android 4.5 and an expanded compatibility list for the Google Now Launcher. We have to remember that whatever software Google releases will not only be the de facto starting point for the majority of Android smartwatches, but it will be the software that will be on those devices and all new releases throughout the holiday season and into early 2015. Because, even if Google were to release Android 5.0 in October, manufacturers wouldn't have time to get it on new hardware for the holiday season, and updates would be unlikely to come quickly enough either.
Since Sudar Pichai took over as head of Android, we have seen Google taking the reins on its platform much more by way of Google Mobile Services (GMS), which is to say Google Play services and Google Apps. More and more of the feature updates for the system are coming through Google Play services and Google Apps. And, Google has reportedly made more strict requirements for devices to gain GSM certification, which could lead to less worry about software updates because manufacturers would be forced to use newer versions of Android from the start.
Android wearables are coming, there is no question about that, and we can assume that the first Google Android wearables will be coming this summer, with the bigger wave coming around the holidays. This means that the question is more whether Google will choose to foster the entire Android ecosystem or just the Google Android ecosystem. The former would mean Google is more likely planning to update the system itself with a wearable-friendly UI, it seems more likely that Google would go with one major update to Android this year: version 5.0, and release it sooner rather than later. The latter could mean that Android wearables really will rely heavily on Google Now and we may not see Android 5.0 at all.
The push for Android 5.0 does seem more realistic to us though. And, releasing it sooner would give manufacturers only one version of Android to worry about, and it would give plenty of time for manufacturers to have the software ready for the holiday season as developers work on optimizing apps for the new form factors. But, even assuming that Google would rather update the Android system than push people towards Google Now, it's hard to say if Google will be able to have that software ready by summer because there have been absolutely no rumors about it.
Google has known this day was coming and it has been working towards it in various ways, but so far we haven't seen the exact path that Google plans to take. It has certainly been preparing though. The Android system is mostly ready for the shift; soon enough, developers will be able to work on optimizing apps; and, as we saw at CES and MWC, wearables are coming and there is really no stopping it.