Android Wear: Zen and the art of smartwatch design

Are you ready for a smartwatch that knows where you are, what information is important to you and, above all, wants you to forget that you're even wearing it? That seems to be the basic idea behind Google's Android Wear platform, which promises to deliver contextual, relevant information to you whenever you need it, while fading into the background when you don't.

With today's announcement of the Android Wear platform for wearables, much of the discussion has revolved around how Google is following the Android smartphone playbook and focusing on creating an ecosystem that can accommodate multiple manufacturers, with a range of products with different price points and feature sets. And Google has lined up an impressive list of partners, including smartphone makers HTC, LG and Motorola; chipmaker and smartwatch-wannabe Qualcomm; and watchmaker Fossil. Even Samsung, which just last month held a splashy launch for its latest round of Gear smartwatches, is in on the game.

... Google doesn't see wearable devices as full-fledged computers or smartphone replacements.

Those partnerships instantly make Android Wear a major platform in this nascent category. However, what's most interesting about Google's approach isn't the business model, which isn't that different from Microsoft's SPOT platform of a decade ago. What matters most about Android Wear is Google's approach to the category. Unlike, say, Samsung, which initially marketed Galaxy Gear as the real-life successor to Dick Tracy's wrist communicator, Google doesn't see wearable devices as full-fledged computers or smartphone replacements. They're designed to help you get snippets of crucial information -- like the weather, your flight status or whether there's a jellyfish warning in effect for your beach -- when you need them most, and then allow you to get on with the rest of your life.

The philosophy is consistent with Google's approach to its first wearable, Glass. The media may obsess about how Glass can be used to pirate movies and play games. But the device, first and foremost, is designed to make it easier to focus on the here and now, while still being able to check to see if your boss sent you that important email you were waiting for. As Glass Senior Developer Advocate Timothy Jordan said at Engadget Expand last year, the best apps for Glass "help technology get out of the user's way, but [are] there whenever they want [them]."

The philosophy is consistent with Google's approach to its first wearable, Glass.

The first Android Wear watches extend that idea further, bringing Glass' location awareness and voice control to a more socially acceptable design. Nobody is likely to ask if you're recording them, and cops probably won't pull you over, just for wearing a Moto 360. In today's Android Wear announcement, Google SVP Sundar Pichai called watches "the most familiar wearable," and said that devices based on the company's new platform "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."

Google isn't the first to treat the smartwatch as a simple way to access actionable information without interrupting the flow of your life. Pebble, for one, takes a similar approach. CEO Eric Migicovsky says developers are encouraged to look for a "subsegment" of their smartphone apps that can work effectively on a small screen. Unlike Pebble, however, Google's ambitions are to give you access to just about all of the information you can get on your smartphone -- but to allow you to do so unobtrusively and with minimal effort. Android Wear apps, according to Google, should "provide the maximum payload of information with a minimum of fuss, optimized to provide tiny snippets of relevant information throughout the day." User input, according to Google, should take place only "when absolutely necessary."

In 1991, computer scientist Mark Weiser declared that "the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it." Weiser envisioned a future dominated by "ubiquitous computing," with invisible technology that is always there. Android Wear, with its Zen-like approach to "allowing you to be connected to the virtual world and present in the real world," and with a developers' guide that lists being "unobtrusive" as a key design principle, seems to be an attempt to deliver on Weiser's promise. The question is, in a world where it's become socially acceptable to pull out a smartphone in the middle of a meeting, and where the most exciting developments on the gaming front all involve immersive virtual reality environments, is there still a market for technology that just gets out of your way?