Android Wear's latest missteps reinforce Apple Watch strengths

There is no question of the value of text input on a smartphone. As popular as Siri and other voice assistants have become over the past few years, pecking out an email or text message using an on-screen keyboard, with autocomplete and prediction, mimics physical keyboards in the best possible ways.

In the wearable space, the opposite is true. Screens are typically too small, and too oddly-shaped, to facilitate on-screen keyboards, which leaves dictation as the likely ideal way to send someone a message longer than a few words. The Apple Watch, in particular, utilizes Siri for a variety of purposes, from dictating text messages and email replies to asking about the weather.

This week at Google's developer conference, a new version of Android Wear tacitly posited that voice isn't ideal in every situation, adding three new ways to input text on a tiny, often circular, smartwatch screen. The first, Smart Replies, is already used by the Apple Watch in many situations, though Google's implementation varies the potential responses based not just on the text on screen, but data from the Google account connected to the watch itself.

Android Wear started out relatively focused, and has since expanded to mimic the functions of a smartphone.

The second, letter recognition, gives Android Wearers nearly the whole screen to trace out individual letters that are then converted into words and sentences, harkening back to the early days of stylus-based PDAs. Except instead of the precise point of a stylus, users must use the relatively fat stub of a forefinger.

The third, and most vexing, of new input methods is a full-size keyboard — or, as full-sized as one can get on a tiny 1.4-inch smartwatch display. We've seen such examples on many Samsung smartwatches, usually met in equal parts with derision and confusion. In the case of Google's implementation, Android Wear 2.0 will support trace typing, which is generally more forgiving than tapping on such small touch targets.

The bigger question is why. Android Wear started out relatively focused, and has since expanded to mimic the functions of a smartphone: native apps, then most recently, standalone apps with cellular support. Some Android-based watches can even make phone calls with a combination of microphones and a speaker, or the use of a Bluetooth headset.

In this way, Android Wear is straying from the promise of the Apple Watch, which despite criticism of being too reliant on the iPhone, was designed as a companion. Such tension has been meted out in think pieces on both sides of the argument over the past two years, with some companies like Neptune purporting to replace the smartphone entirely by bundling a watch with everything one needs to stay connected, including a large display, plenty of memory, a fast processor and, of course, a cellular radio.

In that case, little consideration was made to aesthetics — who wants a small smartphone strapped to his or her wrist — or battery life, which promises to be measured in minutes, not hours.

Moreover, the Apple Watch, despite its meandering and flawed user workflow, continues to build in popularity largely on the strength of its companion promise: Most owners we've spoken to prefer it over competing platforms not for its native apps but its ability to convey notifications in thoughtful ways.

The Apple Watch is not perfect, but it's also a fully-formed thought

While it's not even worth imagining an Apple Watch with an on-screen keyboard for text input — even the 42mm model has a screen considerably smaller than most Android Wear devices — it is important to identify the reasons Apple would never consider adding such a feature, and why Google, two years after the platform's debut, relented to that same tension.

The Apple Watch is not perfect, but it's also a fully-formed thought. With the latest version of Android Wear, it's increasingly clear that the platform is little more than a list of individual features crammed together, benefiting no one but the teams responsible for implementing them.

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

49 Comments
  • The Microsoft Band has had an on screen keyboard for awhile now and typing on it is surprisingly reliable. It's meant for quick responses that aren't already on the quick reply list that the Apple Watch has. I think adding an on screen keyboard could be useful for those that want to use it.
    Ps. When I had my Band, my friends were awed by the tiny keyboard and people who ask me about my Apple Watch are disappointed to learn you can't type on it, you can only, "look at messages" Sent from the iMore App
  • I have to agree. That's the feature I miss the most since switching to the iPhone. The keyboard was great and worked quickly and easily. Sent from the iMore App
  • With my S2 I have three options of smiley, voice dictation or t9 keyboard and I use all three consistently depending on the scenario. All work fluidly. I much rather prefer options over the OS limiting my choice
  • I agree...sometimes you want to be able to type a message for privacy. I have an Apple Watch and Microsoft Band and miss not being able to type. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't think it's meant to be sexting on man LOL
  • Came here to say this. Voice is not an option in many situations. The Band 2 does it nicely, I've been longing for something like it on the Apple Watch.
  • I agree. The Band is a perfect example of how to do small screen keyboards and how it is important to have options. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Surprise surprise another iMore article trolling on another platform Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • Yeah, it's so lame. I can hardly stand iMore nowadays. They'll worship this stuff when it comes to Apple Watch. This Android Wear update looks great and I can't wait to get it on my watch! Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I don't see a lot of action on iMore these days. Perhaps the magic of Apple is gone and the hipsters who still love it don't bother to come here.
  • You're kind of trolling too. Sent from the iMore App
  • The difference is I am calling out an Apple site for trolling a non Apple platform instead of writing Apple articles. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • Right... because other non Apple tech sites (including other Mobile Nations sites) NEVER have any articles commenting on Apple's announcements or actions - especially in a negative, or one could term a 'trolling' way, and only have articles relating to their respective platforms solely.
  • Ya that's pretty much accurate
  • Just because other crappy websites troll other platforms doesn't mean iMore should too.
  • That argument works on grade school playgrounds and in Congress but it's still lame.
  • If they do it is FAR less than iMore. I mean Rene ran a switch to iPhone series last year which were basically grade school level trolling and bashing articles to throw mud on other platforms and brag about Apple, most of the times with half truths or ignoring some big counterpoints. Pretty immature. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • It's usually Apple fanboy articles and the Android Defense League in the comments section
  • He's not trolling. It's more of a smugness like we are better than you. I'm sorry but having a keyboard for the few who might use it is useful unlike apples app launcher with bubbles for apps. I think Google it head of Apple on the watches.
  • Good point. Not like you have to use a keyboard, but there for those who actually would want to. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • You (the author) will love the idea of a keyboard once it's on the Apple Watch in 2018 lol
  • So they updated the entire platform with cool features and nice design, but the whole thing is bad because there is a keyboard and you don't like it?
  • I like the idea of a watch with keyboard, but not sure if Google got it right or not. I'd have to use one first.
  • I have to admit I wholeheartedly agree with this piece. Having a keyboard on a smart watch goes beyond stupid.
  • Lol then don't use it.. It's just an option not like the only way to input. Sent from the iMore App
  • You don't need options for everything in life. Having a full keyboard on a watch is one of those unneeded options. If they want to have typing on a smart watch, they should use the T9 text input method. It's much better for constrained space. That might be somewhat useful for short replies.
  • For “You”.
    I can’t see myself using it but it’s an option should I ever want/need to. Not sure how you can spin that as bad.
  • I disagree with this. Why shouldn't there be options for everything? That way, I can get what I want instead of some fatcat in Cupertino (or where ever) telling me that they way they want to use the product is better than the way I wish to use the product.
  • Not sure if serious? It's not like you have to use the keyboard if you don't want. I hate to say but eventually this option will come to apple watch and then Rene will not let you write this article. May be you can try on Android Central, wait they don't normally troll other platforms instead they concentrate on helpful articles.
  • This is Android, they give various options because people are different and their preferences too :)
  • While it does seem as if Google is throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. I can't fault them for giving users options. Ultimately their will be people that use the swipe keyboard on a watch and love it. Their will be those that hate it. I would also not call an Apple Watch a complete thought. Apple may have had a vision with the watch. But sadly it is a gen 1 product sorely lacking in some areas and great in others. Ultimately we are looking at the different philosophies between these two great companies. Google will give you everything whereas Apple will give you far less but make sure what they give you is decent.
  • All wearables including the Apple Watch are actually very "beta".
  • No. Any product released to the general public (as opposed to betas like Apple's or Microsoft's current preview/beta softwares since you have to actively seek them out and sign up) is by definition not a beta (even those that claim a "public beta"), since a beta is a prerelease software. It might not be perfect and may still be evolving and improving, but it isn't a beta. Sent from the iMore App
  • Let me get this straight. So, you're telling me that the Apple Watch's strength is it's absent text input, especially when using voice input is inappropriate or impractical? Or that, as opposed to Android Wear, the Apple Watch needs to be tethered to a smartphone to be useful? Somehow, you reached the conclusion that a product's strength is its inability to meet basic, accessibility and functional, requirements that it's competitor fulfills.
  • This article is borderline embarrassing to the author. There's really no other way to describe it. You can still exclusively use dictation and smart replies, which Google implements infinitely more effectively than Apple, as well as use it exclusively as a notification platform.
  • Couldn't agree more. Not sure how this got posted, because the Apple Watch is the most unfocused product Apple has released in a long while. The OS is a mess, the dictation is spotty at best, the "smart replies" that the Watch offers are never relevant, and it's over reliance on the phone is its downfall. I enjoy having notifications on the wrist with my Apple Watch, but I wish it could do a lot more when out of range of the phone.
  • Yeah, I have to agree with a lot of the comments here. I'm kinda baffled by a QWERTY keyboard on an Android Wear device, but I really respect their efforts in trying to solve the problem. No problem was ever solved by sneering at anyone who tried to fix it. It's solved by the people who actually do go out and try things. Put it this way, if Apple figured out a way to make it work on the Apple Watch, it'd be included in watchOS in a flash. There's been too many cases of "Android sux, Apple would never do that," swiftly followed by Apple indeed doing the very thing that was bashed – bigger iPhone screens; the Apple Watch; the iPad Mini; the iPad Pro, and so many more.
  • I recently sold my Apple Watch, and I didn't care to do it. I like my iPhone better than my nexus 6p, mostly due to the size and Apple Wallet support for apps I use. But while on my Nexus 6p I had an Lg G Watch I bought for $70 and loved it. I hated to sell it when I came back to iPhone. The screen was always on and I'd have 50% battery at the end of each day. Saying android wear is making a mistake by giving users an option to use an on screen keyboard is stupid. My LG G watch was far more useful than my Apple Watch was. The always on screen worked 100x better than the apple watches turn your wrist method, which regularly failed, to turn the display on. The lack of features on either device are what I consider faults, not the option for new ones. Sent from the iMore App
  • If the next Apple Watch doesn't have an always-on display it's not worth buying. It's turn-wrist method is the most annoying thing about the Apple Watch, not just the fact that it doesn't always come on but the fact that it comes on when you don't want it to thus using battery when you don't need it. Other than that and the slowness, I don't really have any faults with the Apple Watch, though I would really like custom watch faces
  • "If the next Apple Watch doesn't have an always-on display it's not worth buying" "but the fact that it comes on when you don't want it to thus using battery when you don't need it." Are you a complete moron or just part moron? You complain the screen is not on all the time then say the most annoying thing is it comes on when you don't need it and flattens the battery. You are a special kind of troll aren't you? :)
  • Although his criticisms appear opposite, I don't think they really are. One is saying what he wants while the other criticizes Apple's implementation of the current form. I think the underlying criticism of his post is the battery life rather than the screen. Increasing battery life (whether by using an e-ink or other battery friendly screen, increasing battery size, or some other method) would allow the screen to stay on and maintain an acceptable time between charges without resorting to gimmicks to lengthen battery life.
  • The trolling is going to get worse before it gets better. WWDC will solve this. They will finally have something to talk about. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • "Apple Watch Strengths"
    What strengths. Being overpriced, small, and having less features are not strengths.
    Having 3rd party watch faces, a keyboard for people who don't want to go around talking to their watch, and an always-on screen are.
    Sorry apple fan boys, but android is ahead of apple, just like with everything else apple makes, except for desktops and laptops. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • All they did was add another option. It's not like they put in typing instead of dictation or pre-written replies. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • So, they added features? That's something apple doesn't do, then again anyone who loves apple doesn't love options. It's like you're trying to bash on google for allowing us more than one way to do things. Let's not forget how much better google voice is than siri in almost every single situation. I tried it on my girlfriends iphone and I almost threw it out of the window. Stop sipping that koolaid and open your eyes.
  • "Stop sipping that koolaid and open your eyes." You know he was on your side, right? He's saying options are good. :P
  • this is just a poorly written article by an apple fanboy who tries really hard to make android out to be the bad guy, when really that title belongs to apple.
  • So, they added features? That's something apple doesn't do, then again anyone who loves apple doesn't love options. It's like you're trying to bash on google for allowing us more than one way to do things. Let's not forget how much better google voice is than siri in almost every single situation. I tried it on my girlfriends iphone and I almost threw it out of the window. Stop sipping that koolaid and open your eyes.
  • Well, if "hipster" is the worse thing I get called today, then today is a good day. Personally, if I need to reply to a message that the smart replies or voice can't handle, I'll use my phone. I really don't see a NEED for a keyboard on a watch. And I have both Apple and Android devices and I feel this way about both.