The Android Wear smartwatch conundrum: Notifications at a glance v. engagement

It’s time to come clean.

Months before Google announced its Android Wear software for smartwatches I had said that the first company to put [company]Google[/company] Now on my wrist would get my money. There are multiple choices for me to put my money where my mouth is but I’ve reneged on that commitment. Why is that?

I’ve been thinking about that very question lately because next week I expect we’ll see three more Android Wear watches to choose from. Asus has teased its first watch, the ZenWatch, for September 3, the Moto 360 is likely to appear at a press event the next day and LG has teased a round-faced watch to join the square one it already sells. I’ve already tested the Samsung Gear Live but didn’t find it to offer a compelling experience.

Android wear package notify

It’s not the hardware that has my wallet shut tighter than a dog’s mouth on a bone, although the first few designs were a little uninspired. If that were the issue, I’d simply have my credit card ready for next week because the Moto 360 I saw in person two months ago was very impressive. There’s definitely a fashion or style aspect involved here but I could probably overlook it: Heck, I’ve bought some ugly phones in the past.

No: the issue is about software and purpose.

Android Wear is fairly good about what it does, which mainly is to provide Google Now contextual notifications. That’s the very essence of the product. (Yes, there are also Android Wear apps; I’ll get into that aspect a little later.)

But is Google Now enough? The service is absolutely helpful; far more than Siri, for example. At various points during my day, Google Now notifies me that package has shipped or that traffic to my next scheduled destination is heavier than normal. In the latter case, it actually tells me to when to leave in advance so that I’ll still make my appointment on time. It knows these things by peeking at my mail and calendar.

Google Now cards

These are ideal tidbits for a smartwatch because they’re useful at a particular time and because they’re easily digestible. That means with a quick glance, I can get extremely meaningful information. Yes, I can get this on my phone or computer as well. I’m simply pointing out that these types of notifications fit in the context of a watch, but I don’t get enough of these to justify spending $200 or more for them on my wrist.

That brings Android Wear apps into the conversation because these too add value, right?

So far, I’m not so sure; at least in the traditional definition of mobile apps. Why? There’s a key difference between apps for a watch and apps for a phone. On the phone, an app is meant to be engaging for some length of time. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions, such as a Google search, which is something else you can do on an Android Wear watch. But consider the apps that people use most, which are games, social networks, news, etc…. these all capture your attention for more than a split second.

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

Communication apps are also heavily used. Think Gmail and text messages, for example. These too are supported with Android Wear but it’s a clunky experience for a few reasons. For starters, do you really want every single email to buzz your wrist? I don’t and I doubt most others do either. You can configure Gmail to cut down on the notifications by setting up notifications solely for email that Gmail thinks are important. The setup process isn’t intuitive though and for a watch, it really needs to be. Note: JR Raphael shared setup procedures to help manage Gmail on Android Wear here.

As a result, there’s an unresolved dichotomy between mobile apps for a smartphone and for an Android Wear watch. And it’s going to take time for developers to think how they can effectively bring parts of their existing mobile app to the wrist in a way that will compel people to buy a smartwatch. I’m not suggesting that every Android Wear app is useless or poorly designed; instead, I’m pointing out a high level question that hasn’t yet been answered. And since no Android Watch is a standalone device yet, both apps and notifications are readily available on the phone you have to have with you for these watches.

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

So regardless of what hardware arrives next week or how good it looks, I think I’m still in a holding pattern on an Android Wear purchase. Google Now alone isn’t worth it yet. And until we have enough “must have” apps that are better suited for at-a-glance use instead of watered down mobile apps built with a history of engagement, I suspect many others will hold off too.