Google this week announced Android Wear, a version of Android for wearable devices.
He also announced a downloadable developer preview of Android Wear, as well as a list of partners that includes Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung, Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, Mediatek, Qualcomm and Fossil.
The Moto 360 smartwatch. (Photo: Motorola)
It's important to note that from a software developer's perspective, participating in the Android Wear initiative is mostly about Android smartphone app development. To program for an Android Wear smartwatch is to use Google's tools to create an Android smartphone app that talks to the watch.
From the user perspective, the interface is mostly about Google Now -- a voice-based Google service. You say: "OK, Google," then tell your Android watch what you want. Then the watch, using Google Now, will return a screen with the information you requested. Or it will simply take the initiative to show you information, based on Google Now's preemptive search feature or the features built into the smartphone apps that support Android Wear.
So while the focus is on the watch, the key elements are software running on a Bluetooth-connected phone and a cloud service accessed through the phone's Internet connection.
The blog post announcing Android Wear features a video that shows people using either square or circular smartwatches, mostly via a Google Now interface. In the video, users talk to their watches and the watches respond with cards displaying the information requested. The square watches shown in the video look ridiculous -- they're giant, bulky, awkward, clunky devices of the kind that always fail in the market. But the round ones look really good.
It turns out that those are the options for Android Wear when applied to a smartwatch. Developers and smartwatch makers can choose square or round watch faces, and Google's Android Wear SDK will accommodate.
Immediately after Google's announcement, LG announced a square Android Wear smartwatch called the G Watch, and Motorola announced a round one called the Moto 360. The announcement was accompanied by this video.
Motorola is one of the few major companies to release a round-display device of any kind. The round-screen Motorola Aura R1 phone, which shipped in December of 2008, cost $2,000 and flopped in the market. The high price was blamed on the cost of building and supporting the round display.
On the manufacturing side, both LG and Toshiba have developed round screens that could be used by gadget makers, but that was years ago and those screens never really caught on.
Round makes a lot more sense for a wristwatch than it does for a phone. Although it turns out the Moto 360's display within that round watch face isn't quite round (I'll circle back to that point momentarily), the watch looks overall like a winning combination of form, function and features. But the most important facts about the watch -- the ones that will compel you to buy or shun the device -- are still unknown.
What we know about the Moto 360
Of all the smartwatches shipped, announced and rumored, the Moto 360 was the first that made me think: Yes! Yes! This is the smartwatch I want!
For starters, it's just a dumb watch until you want it to be smart. It looks like a physical analog wristwatch. The screen is off by default to preserve the battery. But a motion detector turns the screen on quickly to when you lift your arm to see the time.
The screen is 1.8 in. in diameter, and it flips around so it will read right-side up whether you wear it on the right or left hand.
The Moto 360 is heavily voice- and Google Now-centric like its big brother, the Moto X smartphone. Ask a question and get a result. The watch can also pop up preemptive Google Now notifications and phone notifications, presumably.
The Moto 360 comes with a band that can be swapped with bands made for regular watches, and Motorola itself may offer two or more options, including leather and metal.
The watch is water-resistant but not waterproof.
It has no camera.
Moto 360 mysteries
We know a little about the Moto 360. But there are many things we don't know, and I have 15 questions about it:
1. Why doesn't the screen go all the way to the bottom? If you look carefully at the product shots, you can see that the bottom of the screen doesn't reach all the way to the bottom of the circle. Is something happening in that space, or is the interface just sloppy? Or is there some other reason for it?
2. What's that thing on the side? The Moto 360 has a round thing on the right side. I doubt that's where you wind the watch. Is it a charger connector? Hardware button? Both? Neither?
3. How do you charge it? There's apparently no USB connector, nor is there a Garmin-like clip system. How it's charged is a mystery.
4. How long does the battery last? If the watch can't make it through at least one entire day, it's toast. If it lasts longer than three days, we'll be blown away.
5. Will we be able to customize it on the Moto Maker site like I can with a Moto X?
6. Will Lenovo keep selling it? Remember that Motorola is being sold (pending regulatory approval) to Lenovo. What if they kill it?
7. Can you wake it up with your voice? We do know that when you lift your arm to see the time, the display comes on. Does voice wake it up too, like the Moto X?
8. How much does it weigh? The watch is pretty big and thick, and probably is mostly screen, battery and radios. If it's super heavy, people won't want to wear it.
9. Will it do special things with the Moto X? We know the phone will work with all updated Android phones. But will it do special tricks with Motorola's own phone?
10. Will it support iOS? So far, only Android phone support has been announced. But that's only part of the market.
11. How much will it cost? The company emphasizes the highest quality materials. But if it costs more than $500, nobody will buy it. If it costs less than $300, it could sell pretty well.
12. When will it ship? Motorola says it will ship this summer. But when? Early summer? Late summer? Will they even make the summer ship date?
13. Will only limited qualities be available this year? Experts say that manufacturing large quantities of round touch displays is a difficult and slow process. If it takes three months to get a new watch, people might go elsewhere.
14. Will the screen be readable in sunlight? A watch needs to be usable outside. If we can't tell the time on a sunny day or read the Google Now cards, it's useless.
15. What will it sound like? Will it beep and buzz? Will it play audible alerts? Voices? Music? We don't know.
So before you get excited about the Moto 360, you should know that the most important facts about it are still unknown. Motorola might have a killer, industry-leading wearable device on its hands. Or it could have another Galaxy Gear-type failure. It all depends on the answers to these 15 questions.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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