Surprise, surprise. Apple finally decides to enter the smartwatch game, and now everybody’s stocking up on granola bars and Starbucks DoubleShots to camp out in front of their nearest Apple Store until April 24th. Now, I’m not saying the Apple Watch isn’t going to be any good. I just don’t know if it’s going to be any better than what we’re currently seeing from competitors like Android and Pebble.
Since the release of the Apple Watch is still several weeks away, and Android Wear hardware is as diverse as the phones they’ll be tethered to (as their marketing says, “Be together. Not the same.”), the only fair way to pit these devices against one another for now is through the smartwatch app ecosystems. And because Android and Pebble had a bit of a head start, we’ll just focus on the apps that Apple Watch will definitely be offering when it debuts.
Strava: A draw between Android Wear’s voice controls and Apple’s “segments”
Once Nike fired (almost) their entire FuelBand team, it became clear that smartwatches would replace our fitness trackers. Nike’s precogs were correct. Apple Watch, Android Wear and Pebble all have sensors for capturing fitness data. But even with these sensors, you need an app, and although RunKeeper promised to be ready for the Apple Watch release on their Facebook page, Strava appears to offer the most support for all three platforms. Well, sort of.
To pull up your Strava information on your Pebble, you have to rely on another third-party application called VeloViewer, which allows you to “view the last 30 activities of your friends, drill in to view more details and then dish out the Kudos.”
As for Android Wear owners, Strava has taken full advantage of Android’s excellent voice controls, allowing runners and bikers to start and stop their workouts without ever taking their phone out of their pocket or lifting a finger. And once you’re done working up a sweat, you can get all of your workout information with a few swipes on your wrist.
Not to be outdone, Apple Watch has added a “starred segments” feature to their app, giving riders and runners periodic updates as they approach predetermined checkpoints on their route. And unlike the colorful Google cards, Apple and Starva have opted to display all your pertinent information on a stark black background. So Jony Ive of them.
Ultimately, I think the starred segments give Apple Watch the edge, but it’s only a matter of time before Android Wear developers find a way to do the same.
Evernote: Apple Watch attempts contextual awareness, outcome TBD
Since convenience is the biggest selling point for smartwatches, it’s only logical we discuss how everyone’s favorite note-taking app performs on these three devices. When Evernote first premiered on the Pebble, it seemed as if their ambition was to move every function from your phone to your wrist. As their blog post stated, “With this integration, notebooks, notes, shortcuts, tags, check lists [sic], and reminders are easily accessible.”
For the Android Wear version, Evernote simplified things even further by allowing users to make new notes and search old ones via voice command. The colored screen also made it possible to pull up a picture note, which is obviously impossible on the Pebble.
And now that the Apple Watch is arriving fashionably late, the Evernote team has had time to learn from their previous mistakes. According to a recent Fast Company article, “Although Evernote’s previous efforts on the Android Wear platform tried to give users full access to their note library on a smartwatch, Evernote for Apple Watch takes a step back. Instead, it surfaces only five or ten notes automatically, based on how useful it thinks it will be to you.”
This sounds great in theory, but it remains to be seen how accurate Apple Watch’s contextual awareness will actually be.
ESPN: Android Wear hits homerun with simple notifications
As baseball season gets into full swing (he puns for the millionth time), people are going to want score updates ASAP. Fear not, sports fans. Each smartwatch makes this possible.
Pebble’s ESPN app provides wearers with simplistic notifications about their favorite sports teams. Said updates will currently remain black and white, but since ESPN fully supports the Pebble platform, you can bet they’ll add a dash of color once the Pebble Time cashes in on its $20+ million Kickstarter fund. Honestly, as long as my teams are winning, I don’t care what color or shape the updates take.
The Apple Watch will likely do the same thing, but in a prettier package. According to the current Apple Watch App Store page, “The ESPN app can send you a notification after each score change or noteworthy play. See real-time scores and details like who’s at bat, who just made a three-pointer, or which team is in the red zone.”
“Whoa, why’d you skip Android Wear,” you ask? Well, because Android Wear doesn’t technically have an ESPN app. Instead, Android Wear grabs notifications from your ESPN phone app and displays them on your watch face. And if ESPN gets lazy, just say “Okay Google,” and ask your watch what’s happening with your favorite teams. Google Now will take care of the rest.
This last example brings up a great question, “Do watches really need their own apps?” In a recent episode of Tech Table, visual designer Ryan Considine chalks it up to being proactive vs reactive. With an app, you have the power to perform functions like call an Uber or order takeout. With notifications, you can only find out when your Uber or pad thai is arriving.
In the case of ESPN, I think Android Wear got it right. If your watch app doesn’t serve a proactive purpose, save your developers some time and stick with notifications.
What we know
At the end of the day, Apple will likely have the safest and smoothest smartwatch experience thanks to their uniform hardware and operating system. However, their strict regulations on third-party app development and limited APIs could leave buyers with a frustrating lack of options.
The Android Wear landscape will continue to resemble the Wild Wild West; plenty of developers trying to strike gold, but very few actually will. And Pebble will continue preying on device-agnostic hackers thanks to their dual-OS support and wallet-friendly pricing.
The real concern for all of these companies is whether or not the general public will warm up to smartwatches.