I’m writing some phone and watch apps at the moment. I have mixed feelings about smartwatches because many of them try to be a copy of your phone that happens to be on your wrist. Much of the time, it’s better to just get your phone out and have done with it. I think we need our smartwatches to do things our phones don’t. This smartwatch I have is the Moto 360, which runs Android Wear. Wear is not like other smartwatch platforms in a good way…. but there are some serious privacy concerns as I’ll explain.
Most smartwatches use the app metaphor. You open up an app on your watch – as you would on your phone – and interact with it. The appeal is obvious; it’s familiar. We’re used to it from our phones and PCs. But I don’t think it works well on a watch. More often than not, I prefer to get my phone out when I need to interact in detail.
Wear is different. It is centred around the idea of notifications and responses to notifications, along with other things like voice search, which I’ll get to in a moment. Notifications take the form of ‘cards’. A ‘card stream’ is a vertical list of notifications, in the order they are received. You swipe up and down to scroll through the cards and left to remove a card from the stream, Some cards have additional information and/or controls. To access these, swipe right. For example, a card might show the current weather at your location. Swiping right might show a longer-term forecast and swiping right again might reveal controls for opening the forecast in still more detail on your phone. Another example is a person’s contact details; swiping right might provide controls for emailing, texting or calling that contact.
And that’s pretty much the entirety of the interface. There is no real concept of apps (or rather, that concept is seriously downplayed). On the face of it, this sounds very limited, but this is where voice search comes in. Tapping the watch face or saying “OK Google” will bring up a search interface. The watch will recognise what you say. If it’s a command it understands, such as “show me my reminders”, it will do so in the form of a set of cards. If you ask instead to “remind me to feed the cat at 5pm today” it will schedule a reminder for that time, with the transcribed text. If you say something it doesn’t understand, it will search for that information. Wear is smart enough to understand in many cases what it’s searching for and will format the resulting cards appropriately. For example, I recently needed to know whether a particular shop in a particular town was open that day. I didn’t know the name of the shop, but I knew that it was a cookshop. So I asked my watch “is the cookshop in X open today?”. It came back with a card showing the name of the cookshop in that place (and additional cards for other stuff when I scrolled down). Swiping right gave me a card, correctly formatted for the display, showing me the opening hours.
That’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to do a web search on my watch and squint through the answers until I found the one I wanted. I wanted to get at the exact information I wanted without effort and in a few seconds and this is what Wear allowed me to do.
In fact, Google’s guidelines in developing for Wear emphasise this quality. It says that if your users can’t do what they want within five seconds, you’re probably designing it wrong. And there’s lots of stuff going on behind the scenes to make this easy. Wear depends on Google Now, which you might not be familiar with. Now is a search platform that integrates Google’s web search and everything else it knows about you to generate cards that are context relevant. This is considerably more advanced and ambitious than other PDAs such as Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s the sort of context-dependent stuff I’ve been saying for a while that we need.
For example, my phone has sensors that tell it whether I’m in a moving vehicle. I’ve told Now where my home is and where I work, so if my phone detects I’m in a vehicle, at the time I usually go to work and appear to be travelling in that direction, it will show me any traffic incidents along the route, If I’m driving somewhere else and I have a calendar entry saying I have a meeting, it will show me traffic incidents on the way to that meeting’s location. Even if I didn’t put the meeting in my calendar, it will scan my gmail to see if I mentioned a meeting there and work out that’s where I’m probably going. I can say “give me directions to my next meeting” and it will fire up the turn-by-turn navigation using my phone’s speaker and illustrating the next turn on my wrist.
This is the kind of thing I want from my watch. I want it to know where I’m going and what I’m doing and give me information relevant to that situation without too many false positives or false negatives. Now – and therefore Wear – is pretty good at this. But, needless to say, it comes at a great expense of privacy. Here’s an example that might explain why.
I don’t use my gmail account for everyday mail. But when I found out about Now’s ability to parse email, I forwarded the confirmation email from Expedia about my upcoming holiday to my gmail account and then – seconds later – asked my watch “when am I going on holiday?” Wear responded with a correctly-formatted version of the itinerary. It obviously scanned the email, recognised it as (among other things) an itinerary and formatted it as such.
But here’s the problem. I never explicitly gave Google permission to do that. The Now infrastructure has enormous power to search through all the things it knows about me in seconds, based on situation. This is very highly specific (and therefore highly valuable) information. It could be used, for instance, to predict what I’d be likely to do in some circumstances.
I haven’t given Google explicit permission to do this and there’s no easy way to control it. I could refrain from using my gmail account, but now that I’ve send it my holiday itinerary, there’s no way I can remove that knowledge from Now. Now has access to all my other Google-related data, too. It knows my search history, my calendar, my Hangouts history, my browsing history, where I take my phone and what I do with it when I get there.
All this information makes Wear very powerful and – for the things I want my watch to do – very useful. But I had no idea that Google had this capability and I have no real control over the data included in Now’s searches. I think this is inexcusable. I might be happy to spend some of my privacy to make my life a little more convenient, but I want to know what data I’m bleeding and what it buys me. I want to be able to take away my permission for access to certain data and know how that will impact my Wear experience.
I think Wear has the right idea, but it locks us into more surveillance by Google. I wish Google would give us the choice.