A few weeks after the Apple Watch’s launch, Google has outed its first compatible app. That’s the good news. The bad, or at least the significantly less exciting? It’s one of the least popular apps Google makes.
Google News and Weather was updated yesterday to play nice with the Apple Watch, though it’s unlikely many people noticed. News and Weather only launched on iOS last fall, and there are 26 Google-made apps ahead of it in App Store downloads. To put that in even more context: It’s significantly less popular than Google Slides. When you can’t beat a PowerPoint knockoff, something’s gone terribly wrong.
That’s not to say News and Weather isn’t a fine app, on the Watch or elsewhere. Early accounts of the wristed version indicate it’s functional if a bit limited, which is fine for a used car or a blender but maybe less appealing when put up against a crowded field of free news app alternatives from The New York Times, Associated Press, Breaking News, and more. You can get headlines, for instance, but not full articles or summaries, and the weather doesn’t include any kind of alerts.
As first impressions go, it seems slight. Especially compared with what Google could bring to the Apple Watch if it really wanted to.
The Apps You Want
There are lots and lots and lots of Google-made apps that would make the Apple Watch a happier place. Google Maps, to help you get where you’re going. Gmail, the email service you actually use. Inbox, for that matter, the streamlined email experience that’s potentially even more useful on a smartwatch than it is on your phone. Hangouts, to help feed your Gchat addiction.
The real prize, though, would be the Google App itself. That’s not because you want to shout searches into your arm (although if you do, have fun!). It’s because the iOS Google app houses the closest thing the iPhone offers to Google Now, an intuitive personal assistant that serves up answers to queries you didn’t even know you had.
If you own an Android phone or an Android Wear watch, you already know that Google Now is terrific. Not only that, it’s seemingly custom-built for a smart watch environment; it’s contextual notifications done right. Orioles fan? It’ll show you the score when the game’s over. Have a flight coming up? It’ll tell you when to leave for the airport, and show you your boarding pass barcode when you get there. These are exactly the kinds of notifications that merit a quick glance and a swipe and not much more. And for better or worse, Google’s the only company that has enough information about your life, location, and schedule to make them work.
It’s important to note that all of these services mentioned have frequently updated, feature-filled iOS apps. In fact, thanks to Apple’s ability to keep the majority of iOS devices updated to the most recent version, iPhone owners often have access to better versions of those apps than the 50 percent of Android owners stuck with devices slinging Android Jelly Bean (introduced in 2013) or older.
There’s no question that access to any of these apps would make the Apple Watch more useful, and give Google prime real estate across the only two wearable platforms that matter. So why not start there?
The App Google Needs
The important thing to remember about News and Weather is that while it might not ring your bell, it might be precisely in tune with what Google needs right now.
News and Weather may not be especially popular, but it is important. Or maybe better put: It’s easy.
“The News and Weather app is low-hanging fruit in terms of what needs to be delivered technically, and also the addressable audience,” says Ryan Martin, analyst at 451 Research. According to the 2014 Salesforce Mobile Behavior Report [PDF] checking the weather is one of the things we do most with our mobile devices, and a smartwatch display is just enough acreage for headline parsing.
So, easy for Watch owners to grok. But also an easy decision for Google to make, partly because many of Google’s other app offerings either cannibalize Google, or pose enough of a competitive threat that Apple may not allow them onboard. At least, not yet.
Take Hangouts, a seemingly obvious Apple Watch pick. Message notifications are one of the few things smartwatches actually do well. But if you’re Google, as Martin points out, does bringing Hangouts to the Watch necessitate bringing Voice along as well? Or Google’s own messaging app? Google’s messaging situation is knottier than a sailor’s noose. That’s a problem of Google’s own making, also one that the company would understandably need time to sort out before barnstorming a brand new platform.
Meanwhile, Google Maps poses no such internal conflict but would detract significantly from Apple’s ability to push its own Maps product. And while iOS has recently been welcoming of Google intruders, Martin thinks it unlikely that Cupertino will embrace that kind of openness on the Watch. At least, not yet.
“I think we’re at a totally different point at the lifecycle for wearables relative to the smartphone market,” says Martin. “Right now with Apple Watch being in version one… they’re probably going to be interested in cultivating the ecosystem that they have before opening it up to some of their traditional competitors. Google certainly is among them.”
That certainly seems to be the case so far; while you can find some paid GPS apps that are Watch-compatible, free alternatives like Google Maps, Mapquest, and Nokia HERE have yet to make the leap from iPhone to wrist.
Conversely, when it comes to those Google Now-type superpowers, it’s possible that Google simply doesn’t want to make the Apple Watch too good too soon. It has a lot invested in Android Wear, after all. Why give away your best competitive advantage this early in the game?
The Apps You’ll Get
It’s highly unlikely News and Weather will remain alone in the stable long. A Google spokesperson told WIRED that while they couldn’t elaborate on a larger Apple Watch strategy, they “want to get our apps on all platforms and be available to users wherever they are, so to have [News and Weather] on the Apple Watch is fabulous—it’s a great product.” So while you may never (thankfully) see a YouTube Watch app, the other pieces of your Google life should fall into place before long.
In the meantime, News and Weather serves more purposes that it might seem to at first. It lets Google float a low-stakes trial balloon the Apple Watch’s way. It plays to a smartwatch’s strengths (or maybe more specifically, doesn’t fall victim to any of its weaknesses). It doesn’t trip over any other Google products, or make App Store screeners flinch.
The only thing it’s not, in fact, is something you wanted all along.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.