Why Android Wear is the new iPad

Mobile gadget revolutions happen only twice per decade. And one happened this week.

It's bulky and awkward. We have smartphones, so it's unnecessary. It's a solution in search of a problem. You can't read it in sunlight. The screen gets all smudgy. It's too expensive. It's dumb.

That was the consensus "expert" reaction to Apple's iPad four years ago.

<Moto 360 smartwatch
The Moto 360 smartwatch, with Android Wear, was shown at the Google I/O developers conference this week. The smartwatch is expected to be available later this year. (Photo: Zach Miners / IDG News Service)

The consensus was wrong, and the erroneous judgments emerged because pundits lacked three things. First, they lacked personal experience -- most initial naysayers hadn't tried it yet. Second, they lacked the cultural context -- those who dismissed the iPad pretended that human nature and culture were irrelevant, and that consumer electronics exist in a vacuum somehow. And third, they lacked a broader vision -- the anti-iPad crowd couldn't imagine the influence of the iPad user interface on the larger world.

Google handed out free Android Wear devices at its Google I/O conference Thursday. I got one. (It's a review unit that I will be sending back; we don't accept gifts from the companies we cover.)

Already I'm hearing the exact same list of complaints about Android Wear watches that I heard about the iPad, and for the exact same reasons.

And I'm going to say the same things about Android Wear that I (correctly) said about the iPad: Android Wear will be an addictive and massive cultural phenomenon, and its primary benefit is a lack of features -- minimalism is what makes it so powerful.

The promise

As was the case with the iPad, the experience of using an Android Wear device is transformative and completely unlike what you might imagine it to be. You have to experience it to understand its pull.

Yes: Android Wear is flawed, clunky and not ready for prime time. The LG G watch I'm using is too bulky and square -- the round ones will be much better. And even the coveted round Moto 360 is too big.

But Android Wear watches are the first smartwatches to cross the line from awkward to awesome, because they're the first to completely abandon the smartphone's icons, menus and widgets paradigm and massively leverage subtle contextual cues, images, icons and colors to present tiny nuggets of information in their most essential and quickly graspable form.

You can read other articles to learn all the Android Wear details, find out what Android Wear is like to use and discover how smartwatches will become widely used. You will be inundated in reviews.

This column is not a review. I want to tell you about Android Wear's effect on the mind.

I do a technology show every weekday (shameless plug: Tech News Today airs at 10 a.m. Pacific on the TWiT network). After Thursday's show, I drove to the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco to pick up an LG G watch.

After collecting it and getting it working, I jumped back into the car and started slowly clawing my way through city traffic to head back home to Petaluma. At my first red light, I began wondering about the exact definition of a word that I sometimes use with a general but not exact understanding of its definition. Without even removing my hand from the wheel, I turned my wrist slightly and said in completely natural speech: "OK, Google: Define rife." About a second later, the definition silently appeared on my wrist. I scanned the definition and said "Wow!" Then the light changed and I drove off.

Looking up a word is the least powerful, least interesting thing one might do with wearable technology. Yet it was thrilling because of where and how the interaction occurred. The wrist is a perfect place for instant, quickly scannable data. All the we-don't-have-to-accept-ignorance qualities of the smartphone revolution are multiplied when an Android Wear watch is on your wrist.

Over the next few hours, simple notifications appeared, which gave me nice nuggets of knowledge without causing any disruptive shift in attention. It was like Google Glass, but more subtle and therefore more intimate and personal.

Here's the most important takeaway from this column -- the wrist is a spectacularly perfect place to get notifications, launch voice commands and get Google Now cards. Like the iPad, it feels so good -- you'll know it when you feel it.

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