How Smart is Your Smartphone?
The truth is that, most of the time, our smartphones, well… they aren’t that smart. They’re not intelligent devices. They’re only smart in the extent that they’re internet-connected, so the term exists to differentiate such a device from the previously existing phones that were designed for calling (and, subsequently, texting).
Phones just for talking to people. I know – quaint, right?
To be fair, smartphones are about as smart, generally speaking, as our computers, our tablets, or our cable boxes, but I’ve never referred to my post-internet computers as “smart computers”. Online capability is just a function that, at this point, all modern computers have, just as in the near future, all phones will likely be what we refer to today as smartphones.
Our tech devices have become excellent instruction takers, yes, and we’ve found more and more ways to interact them them – for instance, I can interact with my TV and cable via a remote control, voice control, website, or mobile application – as well as found ways for these devices to interact with each other.
In some cases, specific websites and applications have become very good at suggesting things that we might like. I’ve been extremely impressed with Amazon’s ability to successfully link products based on search and purchase history, and music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Google All Access do a great job assembling music stations and suggestions that appear curated but are actually created via algorithm.
But smart? Truly smart, as in exhibiting intelligence? Nope.
Well, actually… maybe.
The Moto X
The first tech device that ever felt “smart” to me is my 2013 Moto X.* It wasn’t so much any one particular thing, but rather the combination of the Motorola device and included proprietary software, and improvement in Google’s services and creation of Google Now cards.
Every day, my Moto X has Google Now cards waiting that show me the weather, the traffic, sports scores, stock information, and some news headlines about items I’ve been searching for or on websites I’ve frequented. My Moto X, thanks to Moto Assist, also reads me text messages when I’m driving, lets me dictate responses, silences itself at night when I’m sleeping, and can be controlled via my voice even when the screen itself is off.
This device feels smart to me. Why? It exhibits predictive behavior. It does things that I want or need without me having to ask it to do them, and it does an admirable job connecting my devices to each other.**
I can tell Google where II work and where I live, and my phone can follow my interests via search results, and thus it can give me helpful information about weather, traffic,and entertainment that I actually care about.
For example, every day in the early afternoon, I get a Google Now navigation update showing me the time to the street address of my local Wawa. While I rarely get to take an actual lunch break, running to Wawa for a coffee has become an almost daily occurrence for me, and Google Now has helpfully – or creepily, depending on how you feel about this – noticed that I go to this destination frequently and thus maybe I’d like a traffic update.
Whenever I look up articles about something a few times – for instance, the Nvidia Shield tablet, the Toshiba Chromebook 2, and so on, not that I’m shopping for those things Diane! – I’ll get related articles in my Google Now cards and in my “What to Watch” on YouTube. This predictive use of my search and web traffic history is invasive to some, but personally, I don’t mind it. I’d rather have information I want pushed to me than a random hodge-podge of garbage ads.
So what about Android Wear, and what makes the Moto 360 (and similar devices) a “Smart” watch? Right now, I’d suggest that they’re not really that smart. An internet connection alone no longer qualifies a device as “smart” as far as I’m concerned, so just being able to share information with my phone in and of itself is novel, even helpful, but not that smart.
On occasion, though, the 360 feels extremely smart.
Whereas before, I had to wake up my phone and check Google Now for cards, now they get pushed to my watch. I put it on, wake it up, and there they are, waiting for me.
This is actually awesome and is one of the two things that Android Wear does really well.*** Putting on my watch and getting a traffic and weather update that way feels amazing, as does seeing emails and meeting alerts. These quick information snapshots are perfect examples of what I want a smartwatch to do: connect me to information I need without my having to ask for it, in a way that feels organic and easy to interact with and understand.
Unfortunately, Google Now’s interactions with Android Wear go steadily downhill after that first morning rush. You can’t effectively “hide” cards on the watch, so you have to either see them every time you wake up the watch, or you have to dismiss them. If you dismiss them, they’re gone, both on your watch and your phone.
This isn’t permanent, of course – the cards will come back. When? Who knows.**** There’s some interval or trigger upon which they refresh, but I can’t control it and don’t have input into it.
The weather and traffic alerts “feel” smart as I get them again somewhat close to the end of my work day, which is good, but this isn’t always the case; sometimes the traffic alert is too early to be relevant to my actual drive.
Stock alerts appear at very random times. Updates on sport event start times are all over the place. Ultimately the problem is that there’s no ability to control Google Now. You can tell it what you’re interested in, in a few specific categories like weather (location), stocks, or sports (favorite teams), but you can’t tell it anything complex and you can’t tell it the frequency.
It could be that Google’s intention is to steadily improve its predictive abilities that you don’t need or want control, but I can confidently say that they aren’t there yet.
What I want is the ability to set up the timing, frequency, and categories of information provided by Google Now, through the web or my connected smartphone:
- Weather update at 6:45am, 5:00pm, and 9:30pm
- Sports updates 1 hour before start time and on score changes for the four major market teams
- Stock updates at market open and close, and every two hours in-between
- Traffic updates at 7am, 8am (home to work), and 4pm, 5pm (work to home), Monday-Friday
I would also prefer that I could set these cards, on my phone, to be persistent, so that when dismissed on my watch, they were retained on my phone.
If I had the power to set up these alerts to come through at these times, that would feel smart to me. This would be my phone pushing updates to my watch that I could quickly see and dismiss, which is probably what it does best.
I’m sure the Apple Watch is going to be a nice device (he says, reluctantly). It may have some things that Android Wear lacks, which will undoubtedly show up in Android Wear later if they have any merit. But as far as their platform in general, I think their approach is badly flawed. I don’t really want or need a ton of apps designed for my watch: I don’t want to send anyone my heartbeat, or draw messages to send them on my watch, or even zoom in and out of a crazy photograph cloud using a tiny dial.
I’m sorry, I just don’t see how anyone would want to spend an extra $100 for that instead of this:
What I do want is for my watch to be intelligent. I want it to integrate into my daily routine and make my life easier by giving me information in an organic way, one that saves me time. I want to feel like, without this watch, I have to manually look for things that I otherwise wouldn’t have to.
I want to be five minutes from my house, realize I don’t have my watch, and turn around and drive back just like I would for my phone.
Android Wear is tantalizingly close to being able to do evoke this feeling. Despite it feeling half-baked right now, there’s a ton of potential that is so, so close to being realized.
In my opinion, all the other stuff you can do with this device outside of the fantastic navigation – the extra applications, controlling music, integration with existing apps, voice search, and so on – would be icing on the cake for this basic functionality of controlled Google Now notifications.
Someday,whether we like it or not, Google may know what you like and don’t like better than you do yourself.***** Today is not that day.
Let’s hope that until that day, providing additional control over Google Now will let us capture that feeling of Android Wear devices becoming a “must have” device connecting us to timely, pertinent information.
Buy the Moto 360:
Buy the Moto X 2014:
*It may be worth noting that the Moto X (2013) is, far and away, my favorite phone. Every new phone I’ve purchased has been, in some way, “better” than the ones that came before, but the Moto X is actually the first phone I’ve really felt was a leap forward compared to the ones that came before it. The phone is in my opinion a perfect blend of form factor, performance, user interface, and cost.
**In fairness applications like Pushbullet have made Moto Connect on my PC seem almost quaint. If you’ve never used PushBullet, go install it immediately. It has dramatically reduced my need to use my phone at work by pushing all my notifications to my PC, and includes the ability to reply to SMS text from your computer. Seriously, go download it now.
***The other thing Android Wear does really well right now is Navigation through Google Maps, and that, well, I wouldn’t change anything. For both walking and driving directions, Google Maps navigation on your wrist is a killer app that isn’t getting nearly enough positive press. I doubt I will ever use navigation again and not look at my watch before my phone whenever I have the option to do so.
****Not me, we’ve never had control.
*****I, for one, would like to welcome our new search engine overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blogger, I can be helpful in rounding up other to toil in their underground server rooms.