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Apple Watch and Android Wear: Same destination, different paths

Jared Newman | Nov. 27, 2014
The more we learn about the Apple Watch, the less it seems like a complete departure from the existing wearable market.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. Android Wear's single stack of cards seems simpler to navigate, and it allows apps to push out glanceable information only when it's going to be helpful (such as when a sports score changes). On the other hand, Apple gives users more control over what they're looking at and more privacy for incoming notifications. Apple's interface also prevents users from having a big pileup of unaddressed notifications to wade through.

Both systems tackle the same overarching concepts in slightly different ways.

Launching apps: Incidental vs. intentional
The two platforms diverge even more dramatically in the way you're asked to launch deeper apps, such as to-do lists, music players and fitness trackers. The Apple Watch has a traditional home screen for this purpose, accessed by tapping the "Digital Crown" on the right side the watch.

Android Wear has an app launcher as well, but it obfuscated by design. To access it, you have to tap the screen from the main watch face, then swipe all the way down to the bottom of a list of options. It's possible to launch apps with a voice command, but Google's guidelines make clear that most apps should jump into the notification stack automatically, presenting themselves at just the right moment based on context signals such as time, location or physical activity.

Apps on Android Wear and the Apple Watch will also have a more fundamental difference, at least at launch: On the Apple Watch, third-party apps will require a paired smartphone to operate until Apple allows for fully native apps later in 2015. (It's not clear which of Apple's own apps, if any, will be subject to these restrictions.) By offloading computational tasks and storage to the phone, Apple Watch apps can run smoother with less drain on battery life.

Android Wear apps can be loaded directly on the watch, and while most apps require a phone connection to be useful, the system already allows for the independent operation of basic utilities (such as calculators and checklists) and offline music playback. Android Wear watches with GPS on board can also keep track of your location, speed and distance traveled without a paired smartphone.

It seems likely that the differences in these approaches will become less pronounced over time. A future update for Android Wear is rumored to make launching apps easier, and Apple Watch apps may not need to rely so much on a paired phone as Apple's hardware becomes faster and more efficient.

Hardware departures
Several other factors set Android Wear and Apple Watch apart. The most obvious difference is the hardware itself, with Apple focusing on a single device (in two sizes) and Google working with hardware partners on a wide variety of shapes, sizes and prices. By controlling the hardware, Apple is placing a bigger bet on new interaction models, such as the Digital Crown for non-touch controls and Force Touch for pressure-sensitive touch commands.


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