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How Google Can Make a Killer Smartwatch


A movie still from the 1990 version of “Dick Tracy,” where Tracy (Warren Beatty) uses a wristwatch to communicate

Photograph by Everett Collection

A movie still from the 1990 version of “Dick Tracy,” where Tracy (Warren Beatty) uses a wristwatch to communicate

Finally, my dream of a Google (GOOG) smartwatch is looking more like a reality. News hit the rounds on Thursday that the search giant is taking its next steps into becoming a hardware maker, as the Wall Street Journal reported plans for an Android gaming console, media-streaming device, and a smartwatch.

I’m not too excited about a video game console: There are already enough gaming devices available. And as far as media-sharing hardware, Google already attempted this last year with its ill-fated Nexus Q. But a smartwatch? Now that sounds exciting, for a few reasons.

For starters, the wearable device market is finally showing signs of life. Intelligent watches have been around for years, but it’s only recently that the hardware needed to make a fantastic smartwatch has appeared. Chips are becoming more powerful, even as they use less juice and become smaller. Wireless technologies are advanced as well: The Bluetooth 4.0 low energy standard is a great example. Touchscreens and noise-canceling array microphones now help with input on devices of nearly any size.

So it’s not surprising that some recent smartwatches have quickly gained a following or raised millions of dollars in crowdsourced funding. Think of the Pebble or, more recently, the Kreyos Meteor, for instance. Sony (SNE) is also participating, having just announced an updated SmartWatch 2 that will arrive in September. And various other companies are taking a crack at putting a product on your wrist: MetaWatch, WIMM, I’m Watch … and the list goes on.

I’ve tried a number of these wearables in the past, but time and again, I keep returning to the Motorola MotoACTV smartwatch. It continues to impress me because, unlike most of the other smartwatches, it’s not a simple second screen for your smartphone. Yes, it can show incoming messages, calls, or social networking status updates when paired with a phone, but it provides plenty of standalone functionality as well: GPS exercise tracking, a virtual caddie and scorekeeper on the golf course, a step tracker, and a built-in MP3 player with 8GB or 16GB of flash storage.

What does that have to do with Google? A lot, since Google owns Motorola. Yes, it runs Motorola as a completely separate division, but it would be nonsensical for Google not to take a good, hard look at the MotoACTV for the basis of a new smartwatch. Most of what Google needs is already present and accounted for in the MotoACTV, even though the device is two years old.

It already runs on Android—something the WSJ reported a new Google smartwatch would do as well—and has nearly every type of connectivity option available: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Sure, the components need an upgrade from 2011 standards, but the foundation of a great smartwatch is already there.

There’s more, however, that Google has in its arsenal of tools to make a great watch, even if it isn’t based solely on the MotoACTV: Google Now and Google Glass.

Google Now provides personal, contextual information on phones and tablets based on your e-mail, calendar, and Web searches. Look up an address on the Web, and Google Now will give directions and an estimated time of arrival while factoring in traffic without having to be asked. If you have to travel for an appointment on your calendar, Google Now notifies you when it’s time to leave. Nearby events, stock prices, and sports scores for your favorite teams are all part of Google Now as well. Collectively, these are exactly the bite-size type of bits that are perfectly suited for a small screen on the wrist.

The card-based look of Google Now could easily work on a small screen. We already know this, because Google took a similar approach with the Google Glass user interface. It’s simple to navigate through Glass with a finger swipe on the glasses, and the screen doesn’t inundate with information. Again, that’s perfect for a wristwatch. And the look of Google Glass, which Google designed, isn’t too bad for the type of product it is.

Bear in mind that Google isn’t the only big player working on new wearable devices. Rumors of Apple (AAPL) building a smartwatch have been making the rounds for some time. That makes sense: Apple often jumps into product markets with big opportunities, but only when it’s sure it can deliver the best experience. And both companies could benefit from developers creating new apps for wearables.

While I have no knowledge of Google’s detailed plans for a smartwatch, I can see that the company has all of the ingredients of a potentially successful recipe. With just a small bit of hardware-tweaking to the existing MotoACTV in a more fashionable design, combined with the basics of Google Now and the ability to run small but useful standalone Android apps, I’d stand in line for a Google smartwatch. Would you?

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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