Google eyes Android for wearables: A look at the challenges

Google will have an Android software developer kit for Android within two weeks. Can the mobile OS really simplify enough for the wearable market?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Google will release an Android software developer kit for wearables soon in a move that should lead to smartwatch and other gear. What remains to be seen is how well Android can adapt to the small screen.

At South by Southwest, Google's Sundar Pichai, who leads Google's Android and Chrome efforts, said the software developer kit (SDK) will arrive within two weeks. CNET's Daniel Terdiman has the highlights of Pichai's hour-long chat and you can almost cue the Android domination tales for the wearable market.

CNET's SXSW coverage

Great Debate: The smartwatch: Tomorrow's must-have gear or a waste of time?

TechPro Research: Wearable device policy

Pichai said he wants to connect to a bevy of sensors and wearables with Android. Google's Android is already moving into automobiles.

But here's the catch. Android has proved it can move to larger screens. From the smartphone, Android has hit tablets, TVs and even PCs. The small screen may be trickier---assuming some of these wearables and sensor-first devices even have screens.

Here's a look at Android's key challenges as they relate to the wearable market:

  • Simplicity: Android is more elegant than it used to be, but it's an operating system that requires some tinkering from time to time. Android is good enough and might be the new Windows in terms of utility, but often falls short of just working in the background. Wearable computing operating systems really shouldn't be noticed at all. You tend to notice Android because it can be quirky.
  • Hardware vendors may not want to repeat history. One telling wearable moment of late was Samsung's move to use its Tizen operating system for its smartwatches. The same companies that make smartphones are going to manufacture smart watches and they may want to differentiate now they know how the Android game is played. Android means a race to the bottom for hardware makers.
  • It's hard to have one OS for all screens. All Google has to do is ask Microsoft what it's like to have one OS cover multiple screens. It's difficult. Android hasn't exactly dominated the world in tablets and companies like Samsung and Amazon are busy putting their own unique spins on the operating system. Android could simply be too bulky to be useful in wearable computing.
  • The app ecosystem may not be as important on wearable devices. Sure, clothing with wearable computing may have some use, but you're not going to be hitting Google Play to download apps with it. Apps for wearable devices will require a serious rethink. For instance, the applications for Google Glass could be more interesting. Few of the Glass apps would get you to buy a pair.
  • There's a bit of unease about Google and data. Android in a smartwatch seems like a no brainer since the device to date is merely an extension of the smartphone. However, I may not want to share my vital signs with Google and may not want ads and pitches coming to me via a wearable. Google is all about the ads and wearable computing can make pitches a bit more freaky.

Now these challenges may be overcome by Google, but I've been in the tech industry long enough to know that retrofits don't always fly. Adapting Android to wearable computing is likely to be harder than it appears on the whiteboard.

Editorial standards