Android Wear? Not on My Wrist

Google calls its smartwatch platform Android Wear, but even six months after launch, the software is so stripped down that its mascot should be a naked droid. I spent the last few days using the ASUS ZenWatch, which is one of the best looking and most affordable Android Wear devices available. However, even after a thorough testing, I was still left wondering: Why would anyone want one of these things?

The best use for any smartwatch is as a gatekeeper for your smartphone. If a watch can save you from pulling your handset out of your pocket or bag, unlocking it, and tapping a few times, the wearable has preserved precious seconds of your life, seconds which add up to minutes and hours over the course of a month. Unfortunately, Android Wear left me reaching for my phone again and again, no matter how minimal the task.

Skimpy Notifications

Providing rich, helpful notifications is basic table stakes in the smartwatch game, but Google's only throwing down a pair of $2 chips. Android Wear acts like a blown-up copy of the notification drawer, showing minimal alerts that the user must swipe through one at a time.

If you're wondering what your last Gmail was, warm up your index finger, because you'll have to swipe past anything that came in since, including Google Now weather cards, SMS text messages or your heart rate. Once you get to Gmail, you'll see some of your message (with the ability to tap a few times to view more). And, if you're lucky, you'll get a glimpse at another two or three messages. Forget about your non-Gmail email, which usually shows truncated subject lines only and invites you to open the messages on your phone to see the rest.

Almost every other smartwatch platform lets you browse through your inbox, comb through SMS messages or navigate through social updates on a dedicated menu. Samsung’s Gear watches, Sony's Smartwatch 2 and Pebble all allow you to navigate to a dedicated list of messages by app (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) rather than just swiping through a stream of unrelated updates.

Critics have accused Samsung of trying to do too much with its Gear watches, which allow you to make phone calls, take photos and run hundreds of standalone apps. Too many features? Boohoo! Android Wear commits a much worse sin: offering too little.

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Flimsy Features

So what can you do with Android Wear? You can't conduct phone calls from your wrist like you can on Samsung's watches, but you can initiate calls, so long as you're willing to trust Google not to embarrass you by phoning the wrong person.

Just speak "OK, Google" and tell the watch to "call Fred." Hopefully, you have only one Fred in your contact list and you've enunciated "Fred" perfectly. Otherwise, Google may call your ex-boyfriend Ed whose number you forgot to purge from your list. The phone will already be dialing before you see the outgoing number and have a chance to press cancel.

You can also ask Google Now for Web information and get really tiny tidbits back, which also direct you to your phone. If you ask, "Who is the president of the United States?" you get a tiny card with the words "Barak Obama" on it and a button to launch the full article, which has a complete bio, on your phone.

You can also get directions using Android Wear, but you don't get a choice of route and you can't see your location on a map to find out where you're going. The device doesn't give voice directions, either, making for a potentially dangerous situation if you're driving and have to take your eyes off of the road to look at the directions on your watch.

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Dressed Down Apps

When you get bored of receiving almost no information at all on your $200 watch, you can always install one of the 150 native Android Wear apps, most of which are cute but not practical enough. Amongst the best options are dialers that let you hit number buttons to initiate a call (instead of just asking for a person), remote camera utilities, flashlight apps and better-looking watch faces. One of the more useful apps, Lyft, lets you order a car from your watch.

You can even play a game. For instance, in Deadly Spikes, you are a red bird who, within 500 milliseconds, falls and gets impaled on a spike. It's a feeling very similar to using Android Wear.

Time for a Makeover

What should Google do to fix its wearable platform? It needs to make Android Wear as versatile as Android. Allow users full access to their email inboxes, social feeds and messaging threads, not just a highly truncated version of the last message to come in. Encourage app developers to build full-fledged, native apps and put those apps front and center, rather than burying them several taps away from the watch's face.

Google should also allow hardware partners to skin the OS, and encourage them to add speakers, microphones, cameras and other sensors to make the wrist pieces even more useful. In short, put the power in users' hands and let them decide when they want to perform an action on their wrists rather than their phones. Don't solder the training wheels onto the bike.