Time to get skeptical: 9 make-or-break questions about Android Wear watches

Android Wear Questions

There's plenty of reason to be excited about Android Wear, Google's newly announced smartwatch platform.

There's also plenty of reason to be skeptical.

Remember, despite all the cool platform simulations and hardware previews, we really don't know much at all yet about how things will actually work -- or what the watches will be like to use.

Consider these nine unanswered questions and how big of a difference they could make in the Android smartwatch experience:

1. How will manufacturers make their Android Wear watches different?

Google has said it's working with Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and Fossil on Android Wear watches -- so will all those products be differentiated by hardware design alone? Or will the various companies be allowed to tinker with the software and user interface to some degree, like they do with regular Android?

Consider the product renders we've seen from Motorola and LG, for instance. The watches themselves are drastically different, as you'd expect, but the on-screen interfaces also suggest some level of manufacturer-made customizations:

Android Wear: Moto, LG

Compare Moto's sample watch face with the one Google showed on its developer website, at left, and LG's flight info card with the flight info card from Google's demo materials, at right:

Android Wear: Moto LG Comparison

Are these actual UI customizations or just the results of basic "theme"-type options (and/or mere variations in early renders)? If there are customizations, how deep will they go? Will they be baked in at the system-level or included as add-on "skins"? As users of more traditional Android devices know, the answers could be extremely significant.

2. What kinds of sensors will the Android Wear platform support?

Google says a "wide range of sensors" will be available to applications tapping into Wear, including accelerometers and heart rate monitors -- but presumably some of the functionality will be dependent on what sensors each watch's hardware supports, right?

Android Wear Sensors

So what exactly will the supported sensors be? Will there be a standard set all Android Wear devices will include? Or will that be a point of differentiation from one smartwatch to the next?

3. What sort of supplementary hardware will be available/required for home automation?

Google's introductory Android Wear video shows someone opening a garage door by saying "Okay, Google, open garage" into her watch (pretty damn cool):

How much of this sort of functionality can we expect from Android Wear? And what sorts of accessories and supplementary hardware will we need to take advantage of it?

4. How sensitive will Android Wear devices be when it comes to voice commands?

Voice commands make a lot of sense on a smartwatch -- but they also could make for some pretty awkward situations.

Think about it: In addition to the always-listening "Okay, Google" wake-up command, at least some apps on Android Wear have the ability to include custom prompts of their own -- like the prompt for you to say "Reply" anytime a new Hangouts message comes in:

Android Wear Voice Input

With a word like "Reply" in particular -- and no distinguishing "Okay, Google" command preceding it -- it's easy to imagine an accidental activation that'd result in an unintentional message being sent. If that notification pops up and your watch hears the phrase "Reply," after all, it's going to start listening and will then translate and send whatever it hears next, whether you realize it or not.

How sensitive will that function be -- and how will the system avoid those sorts of accidental activations in the real world? Beyond that, will the software be trained specifically to recognize only your voice for any or all of its wake-up commands? Or could someone else saying a command word in your vicinity also set it off?

5. What kind of battery life can we expect from the first Android Wear devices?

Solid battery life is crucial for a smartwatch to succeed. The early images and videos of Android Wear devices show gorgeous full-color screens and always-on listening functionality, which raises the question: Just how long will these initial models last on a charge?

No one wants a watch that won't make it through the day -- heck, even having to charge a watch every night might get annoying. So what's the story?

6. Does the screen stay on all the time with Android Wear watches?

Speaking of battery life, does Android Wear keep the screen on whenever the watch is in use? Or does it shut it off after several seconds of inactivity? The latter would certainly be more power-friendly, but it'd also make for a far less appealing watch if you couldn't look at it and easily see basic info at a glance.

7. Will apps be able to do anything more than interact via notifications on Android Wear devices?

Right now, notifications seem to be the main focus of Google's Android Wear preview developer kit. Is more functionality on the way? Will we see richer watch-based functionality opening up to third-party apps -- like what other smartwatch platforms have attempted to provide -- or is Android Wear by design going to be all about simplicity and a more controlled user environment?

Android Wear Cards

I'm not sure more is necessarily better in this scenario -- in fact, part of me thinks a simple focus that doesn't revolve around traditional "smartwatch apps" might actually make more sense for these products -- but however you look at it, the answer to this question will have a huge impact on what these devices are all about and what types of user experiences they provide.

8. Will Android Wear watches be able to function as standalone devices?

Most of what we've heard so far suggests Android Wear watches will work mainly as companions to Android phones. So will the watches be capable of doing anything when a phone isn't around?

Obviously, anything that's data-dependent will need an active smartphone connection. But is the platform built to allow the watches to work as basic timepieces on their own, for instance? Could you utilize features like fitness tracking and music playing if you wanted to go out for a run and leave your phone behind?

9. How will software upgrades work with Android Wear?

Android Wear is by no means the full-fledged Android operating system, but it is still an operating system -- and odds are it'll evolve and mature quickly, with regular fixes and OS updates.

The million-dollar question, then: Will those updates come directly from Google, or will rollouts be up to each device manufacturer to process and send out like with traditional Android phones and tablets? (The answer to that probably has a lot to do with the answer to question #1.) Will watches stop receiving upgrades 18 months after they're released, as often happens in the world of Android? For that matter, will upgrades even happen over the air, or will there be some sort of manual upgrade process required as a result of the devices' lack of direct data connections?

So many questions -- and for the moment, not so many answers.

Android Power Twitter

It's good to be excited about what's ahead with Android Wear, but it's also far too soon to know how it'll all play out. Marketing is meant to make products look phenomenal. Now let's see how these watches actually work in the real world -- and how the answers to these questions help determine their fate.

UPDATE: 9 big questions about Android Wear watches -- answered!

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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