What does Android's wearable SDK mean for developers?

The SDK should speed the development of Android wearables, and could extend Android to the IoT and Google Glass.

There has been a lot of buzz in the developer community since Sunday’s preannouncement of an Android software development kit (SDK) for wearable devices at SXSW 2014. The wearable technology, designer, and developer communities will have to wait two weeks for details. Wearables are the definition of cognitive dissonance. This product category is both the next big thing and a solution looking for a problem. Let’s explore what wearable means before we speculate about the SDK.

Nonprogrammable application-specific wearables

Independent developers can’t add apps onto Fitbits and Nike Fuelbands with onboard apps. To achieve a low retail price and a one-week battery life, fitness wearables only perform a single function and use underpowered microcontroller hardware. A lone sensor, a low-power accelerometer interpolates movement into a measure of the wearer’s activity, calories burned, and hours slept. Except for the manufacturers’ apps, there’s no way to customize fitness bands. Fitness bands are the digital version of the 1960’s Miles Walk-A-Matic, but with an elegant design. These mass market digital fashion accessories are the baseline to measure what wearable designers and engineers can create.

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Fitness became the first killer wearable app because accelerometers have become cheap, after the smartphone market has driven up volume and driven down price. Designing a new wearable means finding a new power-efficient sensor or combination of sensors that won’t drive the retail price outside of the $100 to $150 range. But until new sensors add new capabilities, fitness bands will remain a polished digital version of the Walk-A-Matic.

There are more emerging nonprogrammable application-specific wearables, such as stealth-mode Stanford spinout Sproutling’s baby monitor and related baby monitoring companies MIT spinout Memo, Rest Technologies, and MonDevices on Kickstarter later this month. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has also inspired a bunch of entrepreneurs to build other inexpensive single-function tracking and location apps that were impossible to build before BLE was available.

According to market researcher Canalys, about 8 million fitness bands were sold last year.

Programmable wearables

Smartwatches have become fashionable and functional and are the first popular programmable smartphone-tethered device platforms. Smartwatches, such as the Pebble, Metawatch, and Samsung Gear line, all come with apps from the manufacturer and are open for apps created by independent developers. The manufacturers and developers can add functions like fitness and sleep functions, eliminating the need for a fitness band.

The Bluetooth-tethered connection to smartphones lets users leave their smartphones in their pockets, using the watch to respond to check notifications, take phone calls, and, believe it or not, tell the time. The Bluetooth tether lets wearable designers eliminate any nonessential components that are redundant on the smartphone. For example, designers can eliminate all communications components, except Bluetooth, that increase price and reduce battery life while giving the developer the option to run parts of the app on any combination: on the wearable, on the smartphone, and as a web service.

Like their nonprogrammable application-specific counterparts these smartwatches are designed with lower-power, lower-speed hardware. The Pebble uses a power-efficient 85 MHz processor to achieve a battery life of about a week, and the Gear 2 uses a 1 GHz processor and the Tizen OS for 2- to 3-day battery life. The Metawatch has two sensors and the Pebble three. But the Galaxy Gear 2, with a heart rate sensor, has almost as many sensors as a smartphone, and consequently the shortest battery life.

Programmable wearables can take many shapes; Google Glass is a good example of a wearable. A car with a dashboard computer open to developers’ app customization could also be considered a wearable given that you get into it and like a smartwatch it a fashion statement. According to market researcher Canalys, about 1 million smartwatches were sold last year.

Google’s wearable Android SDK

Designing a programmable or nonprogrammable wearable is really about designing a unique killer app that appeals to consumers at a low price. With a unique app in mind, designing a wearable is a minimalist exercise in precisely assembling the lowest-cost computing, communications, and sensor components and software that runs the app efficiently and can be encased in stylish packaging.

The SDK will likely improve and simplify communications between wearables and other Android devices and through the Android device to cloud services. Like the Google Play app on Android smartphones and tablets, the SDK will streamline wearable app development by relieving the developer of low-level development.

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