Why Truly Standalone Apps are Android Wear 2's Biggest New Feature

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

I'm a well-known lover of smart watches, especially the Apple Watch. And while I think Pebble is doing good work in the smart watch space, Android Wear has never really impressed me that much. The hardware looked really bad and the software was way too limited. But Google just had their I/O developer conference and I took some time to really dig into what Google is doing with Android Wear 2.0.

My initial impressions of the update were not very positive:

Ultimately, I’m pretty underwhelmed by this year’s update to Android Wear. There are no features that make me feel like I need to trade in my Apple Watch. Frankly, this release feels like Google is still playing catch up with watchOS 1.0.

But some time has passed and I've actually watched the I/O developer sessions to learn about the nitty-gritty details of what's new. After seeing more details on Android Wear 2.0, I still am not totally sold on the platform, but I'm actually more impressed with the update and think Google did the update a disservice in their keynote. Today I want to touch on standalone watch apps, which are going to be a big deal.

Standalone Watch Apps Change the Game

With Android Wear 2, Google is allowing developers to create apps that run totally independently on your watch and don't need to talk to your phone at all. Apps will be able to be installed from the Android Wear app on your phone without installing the corresponding app on your phone, and they will be able to use your watch's WiFi, cellular, and GPS connections to communicate with the cloud. They'll also be able to use your watch's internal storage to hold onto any data they need.

This is a big deal for 2 primary reasons:

First, this means that you'll me much more empowered to leave your phone somewhere and your watch will not lose functionality. As a runner, I love my Apple Watch, but I still need to bring my (giant ass) iPhone with me so that I have GPS data as well as my podcasts with me. If Strava could track my location with the watch's GPS and Overcast/Pocket Casts could have a native app on my watch that stored and played my podcasts while I'm out on the trail.

This makes your watch a much more capable device, and breaks it out from being just a smartphone accessory.

The second big thing this opens up is that this makes Android Wear a much more compelling buy for iPhone users like myself. The current version of Android Wear works with iOS, but in a very limited form. It can really only show you notifications and do "Ok Google" commands, and not a lot more. It feels much more like the original Pebble's integration, which was very basic.

By allowing these apps to be installed and run natively on the watch, the phone you're using doesn't matter as much anymore. For example, if I have WhatsApp installed on my iPhone and Android Wear watch, I can get notifications, see chat history, and respond to incoming messages all on the watch, and it's not communicating with my phone at all, it's talking directly to WhatsApp in the cloud.

There are definitely still questions about how this will actually work, and what complications will come up (everything looks better on stage, after all), but I'm very excited about smart watches decoupling themselves from the smartphone. I want my smart watch to interact seamlessly with my smartphone when they're together, but I don't want my watch to become totally useless as soon as they get separated.