Why Android Wear is the new iPad

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

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It's like Google Glass, minus the camera and the social stigma. When I wear Glass, I always kind of brace myself for the weird feeling I get from wearing such a conspicuous and controversial piece of gear in public.

I wear Google Glass because the upsides outweigh the downsides. But there is no downside to wearing an Android Wear device. Android Wear gives you most of the nonphotography benefits of Google Glass, with zero impact on your social interactions. Nobody really notices a smartwatch. Nobody feels threatened by it. And that makes it more personal and usable.

There's one fact that has been overlooked by just about everyone commenting about Android Wear. Unlike even the iPad, Android Wear is the first platform I've seen that ships with its "killer app."

Every successful platform has a killer app that launches it into the stratosphere -- the one application or use case that makes it so compelling that you have to have one. Every failed platform fails because its killer app never emerges.

The classic example of this phenomenon was VisiCalc on the Apple II. Until Dan Bricklin invented the spreadsheet, personal computers were just hobbyist playthings. Spreadsheets made them indispensable.

Killer apps usually emerge after a platform has been around awhile. But Android Wear already has its killer app: Google Now.

Google has been building and cultivating Google Now into the single most powerful virtual assistant on the planet. But until now, there was no great way to use it. Google Now by its very nature needs to be ambient -- always "just there." But it hasn't been. To use Google Now, you had to make a conscious choice to launch the Google app on your smartphone or tablet, though recently it became possible to click on the little bell icon to see Google Chrome notifications.

With Android Wear, Google Now -- finally! -- is "just there," subtly and knowingly giving you information about things you'd like to know about, all without you ever having to remember to use it.

The first time I woke up in possession of the G watch, I strapped it on and it instantly showed me the weather report. I swiped that away, and it told me it was my friend's birthday. Then it reminded me about an early meeting. Before I even got out of bed, I had valuable context for my morning, and all without feeling like I was "using" technology. I was just looking at my watch.

Before any apps ship, before hardware makers perfect the form factor, Android Wear plus Google Now is already a must-have combination. Even the iPad didn't ship out of the box with its killer app.

The peril

Android Wear, and the smartwatch revolution it's ushering in, will change everything and will be a massively good thing. But there will be some comical problems along the way.

For starters, Android Wear will bring "butt dialing" to a whole new level. Butt dialing, of course, is when you sit on your phone and call the most recently dialed number without knowing it. Android Wear is so automatic and easy to use that people will be doing all kinds of hilarious accidental things. Android Wear watches will overhear conversations and sometimes pick up commands that were never uttered. People will accidentally tap their watches without realizing that they're progressing through a short series of steps toward some outcome. People will send texts, order pizzas and summon rides without being aware of it. The stories will be entertaining to say the least.

Another problem is when people start getting phone notifications on multiple devices -- say, while they're wearing both an Android Wear watch and Google Glass eyewear (or some other notification-harvesting gadget). The current Android Wear system has duplicate notifications going to all connected devices and also appearing on the phone. While it's true that dismissing one dismisses all, the shock and awe of many loud devices going off at once will be a new gadget-related social faux pas (as if we needed another one). A developer at Google I/O asked Google's wearables developer evangelist Timothy Jordan about this. Jordan's answer was that the default is to send all notifications to all wearable devices someone is using. It's possible to send to just one, but it requires a hack on the part of the developer.

Another problem, already the subject of news reports from the Google I/O press room, is that when one person makes a voice command within earshot of other Android Wear devices, all of the devices leap into action. As Android Wear devices proliferate, this will become another hilarious problem that occurs -- at least until Android Wear becomes like the Moto X and learns to distinguish its owner's voice from others.

But never mind the problems, and ignore the naysayers. They're as wrong about Android Wear as they were about the iPad. This is a massive, culture-shifting platform.

Android Wear is the new iPad.

This article, "Why Android Wear Is the New iPad," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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