In its first iteration, Google's Android Wear software for computerized wristwatches isn't so much about innovation as it is an effort at simplification.
Available in two smartwatches out within the next week, Android Wear is rather limited in what it can do. Even last year's smartwatches do some things that Android Wear can't.
But the new software should help rein in a marketplace of confusion and encourage app developers to extend smartwatch functionality, the way they have made smartphones even smarter.
In previous watches, each manufacturer modified Android in a different way, so software developers have had to spend a lot of time customizing their apps. It's typically not worth the bother because no single watch has enough users. To confound the problem, Samsung's second-generation smartwatch, out in April, doesn't use Android at all, but rather a fledging system called Tizen.
With Android Wear, software developers won't have to rewrite apps every time a new watch from Samsung, Sony or another manufacturer comes out. And collectively, there might be enough smartwatch users to lure developers.
In fact, developers should have an easier time with Android Wear than Android phones. Phone manufacturers had customized Android so much that apps sometimes didn't work. Android on phones felt like dozens of different operating systems. With smartwatches, manufacturers will pretty much take the software Google gives them and limit customization to hardware, choices of watch face and apps that come pre-installed.
I'll have more to say on the first two watches, Samsung's $199 Gear Live and LG's $229 G Watch, in a separate review later. I used both to test Android Wear, and this review is about that.
Android Wear requires a companion smartphone running Android 4.3 or later. That covers Kit Kat and the later versions of Jelly Bean, but according to Google's own stats, only about a quarter of Android devices have either. For a variety of reasons, many recent phones can't be upgraded. And of course, no iPhones.
The companion phone doesn't have to be from the same manufacturer as the watch. With both watches, I was able to use Motorola's Moto G phone from November, Samsung's Galaxy S III phone from 2012 and LG's G3, which is coming to the U.S. this summer.
After getting or updating some free apps on your phone, you need to link the watch and the phone wirelessly using Bluetooth.
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