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Smartwatch OSs want to do more, and what that means for developers

Tayven James Author, Independent

2014 was hailed by many as the year of the smartwatch. In 2015 we're finally starting to figure out what that means.

With the Apple Watch now a few months into a successful—if slightly underperforming—launch, and competing smartwatches already on their second or third iterations, we're finally starting to gain a clearer picture of what the future of the smartwatch holds.

From Apple's ultra-quick announcement of the forthcoming watchOS 2 (announced just six short weeks after Apple Watch started shipping) and Android Wear's recent v1.3 update (its second major update of 2015), we can surmise that smartwatch manufacturers are beginning to iterate more quickly. They're also beginning to grasp more fully what consumers really want from wearable devices. This means that the future of wearable technology is coming sooner rather than later.

Just what will that future look like, and what does that mean for developers and consumers? Let's take a look at what we think we know about the past, present, and future of the wearable OS.

The past: Pebble makes a splash

Pebble's wildly popular crowdfunding campaign early in 2012 kickstarted the wearables revolution. After a record-setting performance, Pebble officially launched at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2013 and began shipping shortly after CES. It was a simple device that functioned primarily as an on-wrist GPS display, run timer, and remote control, but it included an open software development kit (SDK), allowing developers to get in on the fun. The first wave of apps ranged from basic, customizable watch faces to more advanced offerings that would let you order a pizza, pay for a venti caramel macchiato, or guide a ball through an e-ink maze. While these apps were a quantum leap for wearable tech, developers were constrained by the fact that only eight applications (a category that included watch faces) could be stored on the watch at a time.

The next wave of watches advertised Dick Tracy-like voice calling but delivered something more along the lines of basic messaging combined with a new level of fitness tracking, including heart rate monitors and step tracking. This generation opened up a whole new set of possibilities for app developers, leading to more advanced smartwatch apps, such as Google Maps and Uber, as well as the ability to send messages using voice integration. Interaction with the device moved from buttons on the side of the watch onto (primarily) LED touchscreens that harkened back to the familiar feel of a smartphone. A few brave manufacturers even made the foray into standalone calling functionality, though they still lacked the hardware specs or software to become a truly standalone solution.

The present: Watch this space

Beginning with the announcement of Apple Watch in late 2014 and leading up to its release a few months later, the concept of what a smartwatch should be able to accomplish—both as a smartphone companion and as an on-the-go personal assistant—began to change. Apple Watch shipped with the ability to connect to nearby Wi-Fi networks, a feature thought to enable the watch to stand on its own two feet. Android Wear responded in short order with an update that allowed smartwatches on its platform to do the same. A more powerful app experience seemed to be just around the corner.

The hangup, for Apple at least, is that its apps are not yet executing on the watch itself. Instead, the Apple Watch merely acts as an external display that allows interaction with an app running on its companion iPhone. The result is a lackluster user experience, with apps often taking several seconds to launch on the watch and frequently failing to execute at all. An expected September release of watchOS 2 will change that, providing app developers with the ability to have their apps execute directly on the watch. It will also allow developer access to the full spectrum of onboard features, meaning that third-party apps can now integrate with Apple Watch's heart rate monitoring, haptic feedback, and Force Touch functionality. These subtle advances in the watchOS SDK give Apple a distinct advantage moving forward.

Android Wear is pushing to keep up, as indicated by a recent update that gives developers access to watch face "complications," an obvious nod to the corresponding functionality contained in Apple's watchOS 2. These complications will allow developers to keep their apps top of mind while providing a quick glance into the key features they provide, like showing the performance of a user's daily stock portfolio or task reminders.

Other operating systems—Samsung's Tizen and LG's webOS come to mind—offer intriguing updates to both hardware UI and calling functionality. But while LG's Watch Urbane and Samsung's Gear S2 have potential, it appears unlikely that either can gain substantial traction against Android and Apple.

The future: Welcoming wearables

Along with granting improved access to third-party developers, watchOS 2 will be introducing FaceTime voice calling (over Wi-Fi) right from the Apple Watch. But rumors indicate that they're not stopping there. 9to5Mac reports that the next version of the Apple Watch is likely to include a FaceTime video camera built right into the device. This suggests that video calling will be a staple of future versions of the watch. While video chat will no doubt be a welcome addition to most consumers (and fans of "Inspector Gadget"), Embarcadero Technologies Developer Evangelist Jim McKeeth believes that such features could present a big problem for battery life.

According to McKeeth, the primary constraint keeping the smartwatch from opening up to more robust app functionality in the future isn't screen size but battery life. "It is important that interactions are quick because smartwatches are challenged by battery life," he points out. "The current round [of apps] do OK, but as soon as someone starts spending more time on their watch interacting with an app (playing a game, watching video, etc.) that battery life will drop quickly." This presents a major roadblock for both current and would-be app developers.

One company that appears to have found an intriguing solution to this problem is Neptune, whose smartwatch-like Hub lives at the center of its own ecosystem of connected devices. Instead of running on a pared-down OS and performing only ancillary tasks, the Hub will run on Android Lollipop and will serve as both a phone and a brain. It takes over the lead role, connecting to a suite of screens (Neptune's "pocket screen" and "tab screen") that act as external displays for an OS that's being run full-time on the Hub.

Such a format could be a welcome change for developers, who would only need to design a single app that would then function on any and every device. This solution would be a stark contrast to the current arrangement, which essentially requires the design of two separate apps—one to run on the smartphone and one to run on the companion watch. It could also provide a serious upgrade in security, which recent reports have pegged as a grave concern for today's smartwatches. Netptune's devices connect over a low-latency wireless technology called WiGig, a fairly new protocol that allows for a more secure network at wireless speeds nearing that of an HDMI connection.

If Neptune's solution can catch on, the future of the smartwatch could be a seamless, secure experience with all our connected devices. It could also mean more powerful apps on more powerful operating systems and an easier road to launch for app developers. And with the Neptune set to launch early in 2016, one thing is for certain—the future of the wearable OS is coming.

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