How app developers are sizing up the Android Wear opportunity

For consumers, adapting to a smart watch is all in the wrist, but for app developers, it will take more to determine whether Android Wear is the right fit for what they want to create. 

Personal Capital watch

Personal Capital's app provides portfolio updates via Android Wear devices. (Image source: Personal Capital)

News recently surfaced that Flopsy Droid, a clone of the massively popular Flappy Bird, would be among the first mobile games to make its way to the wearable platform Google announced at its I/O conference in late June. In other categories, however, such as fitness and health, Android Wear apps have been steadily hitting the market, while device manufacturers such as LG have created smart watches specifically tailored to the technology. For those that get in early, there is the potential to stand out, while those who wait may be able to avoid some of the early glitches that have hampered the move to wearable experiences. 

San Francisco-based Personal Capital, for instance, was quick to announce an Android Wear version of its namesake app, which allows consumers to get updates on their personal financial portfolio via a notification shortly after markets close. They can also use the app to get an alert when they reach a financial goal or want to check on accounts where they may be overpaying in terms of fees. 

Jim Del Favero, Personal Capital's chief product officer, told FierceDeveloper that creating the Android Wear version of the app was "not difficult but a significant effort" that happened over a span of weeks. One of the biggest challenges, perhaps not surprisingly, was getting access to devices for experimentation. The team eventually resorted to getting an LG smart watch on Craigslist in order to speed up the process, he said. It was all worth it, however, given how wearable computing can address the way people will want to use certain apps in the future. 

"Financial apps and fitness apps have something in common, in that they're trying to encourage a certain behavior that doesn't have a short-term payoff," he said. Whether you're trying to save more money or lose weight, those are the kinds of things where having an alert-based app attached to your wrist makes a lot of sense, he added.

Watches vs. glasses
Just as Google released Android Wear, mobile app performance monitoring software provider Crittercism released the results of study conducted with Harris and more than 2,000 U.S. adults which showed that, among those interested in wearables, twice as many, or 54 percent, are interested in wearing a smart watch than Google Glass-style hardware. 

"I went to Google I/O and have one of the watches. People ask me all the time, 'What do you think?' Well, I forgot to wear it today, and it's bothering me," said Andrew Levy, Crittercism's cofounder and CEO. "I think I'm becoming somewhat dependent on it, which is good news."

Levy believes other categories will quickly adapt to Android Wear, including mobile games, though the form factor and battery life may be an issue. 

"You could imagine some augmented reality, non-traditional type games that use wearables as an extension of the experience," he suggested. "It could be something as simple as Zynga notifying you your farm (in FarmVille) needs to be watered."

Ashish Toshniwal Y Media Labs


More opportunities to come
Ashish Toshniwal, CEO and founder of developer studio Y Media Labs based in San Francisco, said other opportunities for Android Wear might be in transportation, where consumers would check their wrist to see when a cab from a company like Uber might be on its way. Smart watches might be a great way to convey game information for the sports industry, while retailers can push notifications about special deals. Other hot sectors will come as more sensor networks are deployed in buildings.

"They will likely come into play with smart homes, for example, controlling your Nest through your smart watch," he said, referring to the high-tech thermostat firm acquired by Google earlier this year. 

Besides LG and Samsung, which has its Galaxy Gear companion smart watch, there are a growing number of hardware platforms where wearable apps might surface. Santa Clara, Calif.-based GPS provider Magellan, for example, offers the Echo sports watch, offering a number of fitness and lifestyle apps. Mike Maxson, a senior product manager at Magellan, said the company is still exploring the possibilities with Android Wear, but suggested that tight integration with the OS is key for wearable apps and smart watches to succeed. 

"There's no clear winner yet," he said, noting the ongoing rumors of an iWatch and related technology that could be forthcoming from Apple. "Developers are hesitant to invest their time and their resources into making apps for many watches unless they're compensated." Rather than directly paying developers to make apps for its product, Maxson said Magellan has chosen to offer support for integrated marketing plans to help developers bring awareness about apps that support Echo to their customer base. 

Magellan sports watch

Magellan's Echo series works with smartphones to track progress.

Maxson noted that indie developers seem more eager to move into wearable apps, but they have had to tend with a few bumps along the way so far. For example, a report from Android Police last month revealed that Android Wear fails to pass encryption keys for apps (which must still be downloaded via smartphones and then sent to a smart watch via Bluetooth), preventing paid apps from being processed properly. More recently, Google admitted in a blog post that there is no easy way to create a custom watchface for Android Wear, and that an API will not be available until the launch of Android L later this year. 

Ed Anuff, vice president of product strategy at Apigee, said the company will be helping developers move more aggressively into the wearable space by introducing support for Android Wear in its SDKs and Node.js modules to make their own APIs. To get a sense of where Android Wear apps are headed, he suggested thinking about things that are possible with phones, but clumsy, like opening the door with your phone or doing NFC payments. These activities could become a lot easier with a wrist-band form factor. Developer challenges around discoverability, engagement and monetization, however, are another matter. 

"I don't think any of those things are going to become easier," he said. "In fact, they're going to be a lot more complex, but the rewards for doing them right will become higher."