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.

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.

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.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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