The Market for Where-Ables

Android Wear to Support GPS. Offline Maps Absent.

Google maps

Yesterday two key engineers in Google’s Android team said that the wearable-optimised Android Wear platform will soon be upgraded to support GPS hardware and Bluetooth accessories such as headsets. Google will also offer improved support for the development of third-party smartwatch faces which should lead to some innovative designs and user experiences.

Support for on-board GPS hardware in Android Wear was expected and is something already announced on Samsung’s Tizen-based Gear S. Enabling smartwatches to be self-reliant for location information opens up the devices to a broad range of sporty usage scenarios, particularly for runners, skiers and hikers who want to travel light and leave their smartphones at home. Google’s updated version of Android Wear will allow users to track their distance and pace while listening to music on a Bluetooth headset, all without a connection to a smartphone or tablet. This is an area in which Android is catching up with Tizen. And Android Wear is still lacking in some other features that prevent it from becoming a truly stand-alone platform.

Google does not provide convenient offline digital map data for Android Wear, meaning GPS coordinates have limited immediate contextual use. As we recently noted (see Off the Map. Google’s Last Location Weakness.), Google Maps for mobile falls far behind the offline map features available from Nokia’s Here and other third-party navigation providers. In addition to Windows Phone devices, Here map data and navigation software will now be used in Samsung Galaxy smartphones and Tizen-based devices. This includes the SIM-enabled Samsung Gear S smartwatch, a wearable that can really fly solo. This was a significant deal for both Samsung and Nokia.

Providing users with convenient on-board map data supports offline services such as turn-by-turn navigation, public transport routing and local search. Without locally stored data, users need a data connection for a full location experience. Several third-party offline location apps are available for Android Wear using the crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap data, but nothing from Google.

Samsung’s Gear S is still unique for smartwatches both in its professional-quality, locally-stored navigation solution and its SIM-card support. We expect to see similar support in future releases of Android Wear to enable innovative stand-alone wearable devices.

Many new smartwatches will be announced during the coming weeks, but Samsung is bringing unique practical features to its Tizen-based wearables with Nokia’s offline maps. It should be used as a strong selling point over Android Wear-based devices, which have more apps, but lack the maps.