Android Wear 5.1.1: WTF update and why Bubble Cloud Launcher is still needed

The big stream, little pipe problem

My Coffee interface. Four important people.

My Coffee interface. Four important people.

Android wear is actually version 1.3.0.2166028, but most folks refer to the Android OS version that’s pushing it – currently 5.1.1. In an earlier post about Wear, I complained about the lack of options for responding to tweets and SMS messages. Those issues are still valid, but so are the solutions. I use Coffee extensively for SMS, though I’ve given up trying to deal with tweets via Wear. Tweetings splits out mentions and  reading that feed is easy enough as there are only a few per day (if I’m lucky). But trying to look at my entire timeline is too much for the Bluetooth connection. Loading is often painfully slow, and the app doesn’t let me select on one of my lists to view. I have a number of very focused lists, like Technology, that aren’t going to be filled with the usual chatter that swells the banks of the Twitter river. That would make scanning Twitter a whole lot more practical. Scanning by conversation would be cool too (and Tweetings does that on the phone app with their stacked timeline).

The animatronic Norm Crosby

Perhaps a newer watch would handle the Twitter load better (I have the Moto 360, which famously has an older CPU in it) but then I hit trouble crafting responses. The voice transliteration of Android Wear is pretty good, but just try to tweet about ‘The Balvenie’ (a brand of Scotch) or even ‘Android Wear’ (which comes out ‘Android where’ — hello, Google, you know that’s a product of yours, right?). The results are unintentionally comical and remind me of an old-school comedian, Norm Crosby. Norm made a career out of malapropisms — like this schtick, in which he explains (in an inadvertent call-out to the horrendously sexist scene that just passed) that Dean Martin treats his bevy of beauties with ‘tenderness and affliction.’ You can just imagine your tweet going out with such a malaprop. Coffee avoids that with providing a raft of well-organized responses you can customize on the fly by adding a word or two to a stock phrase.

Coffee succeeds by focusing on the kind of short, telegraphic communications we typically do in a busy day, so their problem set is more focused than what Google tries for in their voice recognition. Still, we need similarly smart thinking for Twitter voice crafting. For instance, the ability to choose a subject, such as ‘Scotch whisky,’ might make  it possible for me to tweet about Lagavulin some day — by applying a custom dictionary for voice recognition.

Just scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling along

Top of the Wear Apps list

Top of the Wear Apps list after a week

So far nothing I’ve covered is new. What has 5.1.1 brought us? Well, presumably better app launching. With a swipe to the right on the watch face, you get right to the app list, and it starts with three apps in order of importance. Take a look at the screenshot here. I use the Moto Body link about 8 times a day (as I’m in a life-or-death struggle with the wife for step supremacy), BeyondPod daily, and Coffee a bit less than that. Those are my most-used apps. But I hit up settings often too, to goose the watch’s Bluetooth to reconnect to the phone. Even though I don’t go through this app list to get to settings, it gets prioritized here and ends up in my top 3 list. Not cool. And if I’ve used CoffeeTime to pay at SBUX, well, that’ll turf out my most-used apps…because the first 3 list is a most recently used, not most often used list. Huh…

What’s next? The agenda and alarm apps…those are only there because they start with ‘A’. Yup, that’s right, the rest of the list past the first three is just an alphabetic list. That is how intelligent Google made my app list? Google, the people who prioritized the internet, can’t prioritize an app list. WTF? Alphabetic listings have their place but using the alphabet to organize apps is disappointing. Functional groups would be nice, and keeping most-used apps to the top would be great. Or let me select which ones appear in the list. WE can’t control the list at all as it stands now.

Making it stick

Back to Wear: I get notifications from my calendar so I rarely open Agenda, and similarly, Alarm is only occasionally hit. So what happens — I end up with a scrolling list to find my apps. I don’t know what the average Wear app list is like but mine has 36 apps – and some I hit frequently take a number of swipes to find:

  • Keep
  • Play music
  • Moto Body

So, cry me a river, you say? Think about it — the point of the watch is to get to the info you want more quickly and more conveniently than by fishing a phone out of pocket, briefcase or purse. But I’m going to be quicker with the phone as 1. the watch is a trusted device, so the phone is unlocked and 2. I’ll locate the app onscreen faster than I’d get to it scrolling along on the watch. In fact, with custom skins you can have a number of these functions on the phone’s lock screen.

Bubble Cloud Launcher

Bubble Cloud Launcher

Which brings up Bubble Cloud Launcher. Apple got it right, using a cloud launcher for apps and BCL brings that interface to Android Wear. The app is a bit dizzying to navigate (lots of options and a confusing interface for them) but it is worth it once you set it up. There are a few things to note about the bubble cloud:

  1. Data density. No text tags, so instead of seeing three apps at a time (as in the Google app list above) I can see a dozen or more.
  2. Size as information. This example to the left is not as obvious as it can be but the size of the app bubbles is editable, either through use (more use == larger size) or via the phone app, where bubble sizes can be edited.
  3. Selectivity. The bubble cloud at left is my ‘favorites,’ which show up every time I swipe from the side of the watch. All other apps get archived, another swipe away, so I don’t have to sift through the whole galaxy of Wear apps to find the ones I want.

What the cloud launcher brings to app launching is immediacy, location-based search (my Coffee Time icon is on the far right, for example) and the option to make one or more apps really big targets. Note the Coffee app is a bit larger than the others. You can make an app double that size. Furthermore, since Google does nothing to help you edit which apps appear on your watch’s app list (hence my list of 36, most of which I never use), the ability to ‘favorite’ the ones you go to often is yet another WTF that Bubble Cloud Launcher patches.

Wrapup

Android Wear’s latest update is nice, they gave us a watch face we can talk to our buddies with, but they have to sell a few million more Wear devices before that’s practical. I hear that music to be downloaded is now selectable, but that function did not work with my Moto 360 (for which it went back to Moto). Interactive watch faces from Moto are great–I love Dials II and the ability to get a quick read on my steps and the weather. What they still haven’t addressed are:

  • App filtering – only load the apps I want on my watch.
  • App launching – improve app launching; preferred apps should rise to the top based on frequency of use. Give us a way to warehouse stuff we never launch from the watch.
  • Context based voice recognition – give developers an API to draw on specialty dictionaries for specific subjects or apps so that voice control has better results.

Let’s go, Google. There’s lots more to do. 2016 should be a good year.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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