Google is retracing a path that will seem curiously familiar to those with a good eye for history: Over a decade after Microsoft pushed its ultimately unsuccessful SPOT smart watch platform, Google this week announced its own Android-based smart watch platform. Called Android Wear, the platform will be extended to other wearable devices in the years ahead, the firm says.
"Most of us are rarely without our smartphones in hand. These powerful supercomputers keep us connected to the world and the people we love," Google Senior VP of Android, Chrome & Apps Sundar Pichai writes in a post to the Official Android Blog. "But we're only at the beginning; we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible with mobile technology. That's why we're so excited about wearables—they understand the context of the world around you, and you can interact with them simply and efficiently, with just a glance or a spoken word."
Unless you just came of age in the few years, those words will sound familiar. When I first wrote about Microsoft SPOT back in January 2003 in "Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) Preview," I noted that the first generation of those devices would likewise focus on time pieces such as wristwatches. Then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had the following to say about the coming products.
"This is the next generation of what the watch should be," Mr. Gates said during a CES 2003 keynote address. "You pick a channel, weather perhaps. It handles the time zone change and sends messages to the watch. It's been a while since watch technology has improved."
Well, a decade later, and it's again been a while since watch technology has improved. And though Apple has been rumored to be working on a smart watch and other wearables for some time—the firm just can't move quickly anymore, it seems—Google has raced ahead with its own Android Wear platform. But even Google isn't as fast as some of its partners: Samsung, the world's biggest maker of smartphones (Android or otherwise), started selling Galaxy Gear devices last year.
Of course, a decade's worth of time also brings with it a decade's worth of improvements. The first Android Wear devices won't be hobbled by the 28MHz ARM CPU, 512KB of ROM, 384KB of RAM, 120 x 90 black-and-white LCD, and proprietary wireless network that first-gen SPOT watches provided. Instead, they will be real Android devices with "OK, Google" voice command functionality, health and fitness monitoring, and Google Now-type suggestions that appear, creepily, when you need them. This is Google, not Microsoft. And it's 2014, not 2003.
Android Wear devices will also work with Android handsets and tablets, a kind of integration that wasn't possible a decade ago. They will work like more easily accessible screens for the other devices, providing notifications or front-end UIs for Android device-based apps. Plus those voice command functions, which will work through the watch (or other wearable) and trigger actions on the more powerful device you might have in your pocket.
Google is also offering a preview version of the Android Wear APIs and device emulators so that developers can get started targeting this platform. Given the success of Android—which accounts for 80 percent of all smartphone sales and 65 percent of all tablet sales—my suspicion is that developers will jump on board immediately. Simply by announcing Android Wear, Google has made it a viable new platform.