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Opinion: Android Wear isn’t a failure, it just needs fixing

Opinion: Android Wear isn’t a failure, it just needs fixingIn March 2014, Google unveiled Android Wear, a subset of their popular smartphone operating system geared towards smartwatches. It's been a year since its unveiling, and about half a year since the first lot of devices hit the shelves. But it seems the industry already isn't happy with Android Wear's performance, since reportedly just 720,000 watches were shipped in 2014.

Headlines ranged from 'dull and lukewarm' to even declaring the Apple Watch, which is yet to go on sale, the "winner of the smartwatch race." It is disheartening to see people landing to these conclusions, making me wonder how many of them have used Android Wear at length, to begin with. After four months of strapping the Moto 360 to my wrist, I am confident that Android Wear is a darn good first attempt at a true smartwatch platform. Yes, it's rough around the edges, but despite that it has been an indispensable tool for me, especially while driving.

Here's what needs to be fixed with Android Wear to make the platform watertight:

1) Better battery life

Yes it is an obvious pain point, but let me elaborate. The Moto 360 I own is the worst of the lot, assumingly due to its use of an old chipset and a comparatively smaller battery size. It lasts between 15-20 hours with regular usage. When I say regular, my usage involves clearing the 100 odd notifications I receive in that time, performing a few voice actions, and checking the time say 30-50 times a day (it's also a watch). This is with ambient mode, where the display is permanently lit up to tell the time, turned off. The moment I try to use 3rd party watch faces or apps, the battery life takes a radical dip. So I refrain from using any of them.

Other smartwatches like the LG G Watch, that my colleague uses, lasts twice as much as mine with a similar usage pattern. But I have my doubts about it lasting the entire day if you plan on using some of the advertised features like fitness tracking using GPS or navigation or music playback. It's probably too much to expect a 7 day battery life from these things any time soon, and personally I'm OK with putting it on charge every night. But the battery life needs to get to a point where you can exploit every feature the watch has to offer, and it will survive till end of the day, with Ambient mode on.

2) Cheaper smartwatches

The first batch of smartwatches included the LG G Watch, the Samsung Gear Live and the Moto 360. The first two fell flat on their face when they were launched a shade under Rs 15,000, here in India. The Samsung Gear Live didn't survive on the shelf for long, while the G Watch saw a big spike in interest when its price was dropped to less than half on e-commerce portals, the lowest being around Rs 6,500. Only the Moto 360 still sells at the same Rs 18,000 launch price tag, commanding that price because of its premium stature.

But here's the thing; most smartwatch makers are in a desperate attempt to increase their margins by selling these products as fashion accessories than mobile accessories. Many Android Wear watches seen in recent times have been premium — from the LG Watch Urbane, to the Huawei Watch, to even the recent Google partnership with Tag Heuer.

With the aggressive reduction in smartphone prices, no wonder it's hard for people to spend the same amount of money on an accessory product as they would on the phone itself. Even in the traditional watch industry, you can buy a watch anywhere from Rs 1,000 to many lakhs of rupees. There's a desperate need for plain-jane, entry-level products like the original G Watch for less than Rs 10,000. Since smartwatches employ similar components as a smartphone, I sincerely doubt it's too much to ask.

3) A speaker

Some non-Android Wear smartwatches have employed this, surprisingly including the Apple Watch. Although I doubt the use of a speaker on a smartwatch to take calls or listen to music would be helpful, I feel an audio feedback is sorely missing when you're using voice commands. It is also critical when you need to keep your eyes on the road while driving. You can already experience the convenience of audio feedback when you perform voice actions with Google Now on your phone. The same convenience on the wrist would be wonderful.

4) Support for iPhone

With over 80% worldwide marketshare, there is no burning need for Google to use Android Wear as a tether to the Android smartphone ecosystem. On the other hand, opening it up to iOS will certainly help Android Wear find more takers who are not convinced with the pricey Apple Watch. Even the people using an iPhone who prefer using Google's ecosystem of services would be better benefited. And it shouldn't really be hard to implement, as Apple has long supported the transmission of notifications to wearable devices with their Apple Notification Center Service (ANCS) API. It's the same API that Pebble uses to push notifications onto their smartwatch for Apple devices. A developer also recently hacked his way into making the two work:

Although certain restrictions in functions may apply for iPhone users, it will be interesting to see how Google overcomes that. They have done it before, by making the Google Glass compatible with the iPhone. It's time they do it with Wear, and guess what, they already might be.

5) Offline Voice Recognition

This is probably the trickiest of the lot, but if possible, would ease the everyday pains of Android Wearer users. Whenever you say any voice command, the watch is actually transmitting a small audio file via Bluetooth to the phone, which sends it to Google's servers, which does the recognition and delivers a result, that ultimately finds its way back to the watch. This link gets broken every time your phone doesn't have fast internet access (read: 2G). Nothing can be more irritating when you are asking the watch to perform a simple task like play music or set a reminder, tasks that require no internet, and the watch throws back a stupid 'Offline' error message.

Can speech recognition work offline? It already does in Android smartphones, where you get an option to download a language pack for offline recognition. If Android Wear can boast of smartphone-like specifications, I sure hope it can process voice commands without the internet too. The real trouble for Google is to differentiate between the tasks that can be performed offline and the ones that can't be.

If not this, it'll be nice if it could at least park your voice commands till the phone restores internet connectivity, and then try again. Just like how a WhatsApp message is automatically delivered once your phone gets connected, even if you hit send when offline.

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