Born in Belfast, David Singleton studied computer science at Cambridge and now works at Google in London. As Vice President of Engineering, he is responsible for the development of Android Wear, the company's own software platform for smartwatches. I met him in Basel for the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in March 2017.
Before Smartwatches, what watches did you wear? Have you even worn any?
Oh, yeah! I've worn watches most of my life. My very first watch was a Casio F-91w. At that time, it was very popular with the boys. It was very cheap. But I loved it. I still remember exactly how I used the stopwatch and alarm every day. I also remember the dial very well. As time went on, I also had other watches. But there was a time - before I started working on Android Wear - when I wasn't wearing a watch at all.
But your work and of course Smartwatches have made you wear them again?
Exactly. A few Google employees in Zurich thought about what would be possible with hardware becing smaller and smaller - so small even that you could comfortably wear it on your body. So they put their smartphones on their wrists to see what problems need to be solved. On the streets of Zurich they tested how useful a wrist computer could be for everyday use.
And what lessons have they learned?
First of all, that the idea had a lot of potential. I still remember a test app that automatically showed you the next departure times at the tram stop. That was very promising.
But there were certainly also numerous complications and hurdles.
We quickly realized that there are many challenges in the field of human-computer interaction. It would be difficult to type text on it. It is incredibly important that the watch always shows the information you want to see. But thanks to the experiments carried out by the team in Zurich, we finally decided to turn Android Wear into a full-time project.
Was it clear from the beginning that the findings will lead to an operating system?
That's the question we asked ourselves. Do we want to build a product? Or something else? We came to the conclusion that individuality plays a central role in things you wear on your body - such as dresses or watches. We knew that a one-size-fits-all wouldn't work in the long run. That's why we chose an open software platform with an ecosystem of partners.
How many watches from partners do you have in the meantime?
Last year there were 10 new watches. Now that Baselworld has been completed, there are already 20 this year alone, and of course there will be more later this year.
You started by working with tech companies such as Motorola, Samsung and LG. Now more and more traditional watch companies are joining the ranks with TAG Heuer, Movado, Fossil or Montblanc. Was it a cultural shock to work with such companies?
In the beginning they may have talked about things we didn't understand, and vice versa. But we found each other very quickly. The cooperation was excellent. On both sides, there was a strong motivation to learn and experiment with something new. At TAG Heuer - after all, TAG means technology d' avant-garde - they are always on the hunt for new innovations. That's why I found it so inspiring to work with them.
But that was not only the case with TAG Heuer.
The week before last we launched a new watch together with Montblanc. They are also very open to innovation. Montblanc has already launched products that help to digitise notes. When they were talking about the watch, they decided who could be a potential buyer. The idea was to create a watch for a busy businessman who is on the road a lot. They then developed the apps and dials especially for such a watch. I like one detail in particular. A dial shows a mountain that grows higher the closer you get to your fitness goals. This is a perfect match for Montblanc.
It's interesting that you highlight these specialties and peculiarities. With the first version of Android Wear this was practically impossible. Well, TAG Heuer got a black background instead of a white background in the menu, but otherwise they all got the same software. Have you become a little more open? After all, such small details are the be-all and end-all in the watch business.
Our philosophy with Android Wear is to enable our partners to make individual adjustments. For example, where the brand or the specific clientele is concerned. We have learned from our partners over time where it is particularly important to them, and we have made this possible. In principle, Android Wear is very open to innovations from partners. For example, with dials, each pixel is designed by the partner. That's why it is also possible for watch manufacturers to continue their design philosophy with Android Wear 2.0.
How big is your fear that people will wear beautiful watches with ugly, self-designed watch faces?
When you buy a beautiful watch, you obviously like the design. That's why people will choose watch faces that match the design of the watch.
One of the things I do in everyday life all the time is changing between different watch faces.
Android Wear 2.0 has simplified this. Now you can just swipe back and forth.
So I don't have to open apps and just swipe to the left if I want to see what time it is in America.
It's the same with me. Here is an example of a dial I made with the TAG-Heuer software. I use that during the day. Below I have added the calendar, then I see my steps. In the evening I switch to an elegant dial with less information.
Changing dials is often underestimated. There's so much you can do with it.
We saw quite early on that our users and developers like to make their own dials. The challenge is that it will then be difficult to present the important information on the dial. For example, in order to get the weather forecast, you had to choose the dial that had the corresponding function. That's why we have developed an interface for developers, so that each dial can obtain data from any app.
How often do you use apps compared to complications?
I open apps every day. But mostly because the complication showed something that I find interesting. For example, the calendar complication shows me the next appointment prominently on the dial. But if I want to see the next one, then I have to open the app. That's why complications are so exciting for developers.
The first Android Wear was always too inconsequential in this respect. Sometimes you had to swipe the left, sometimes to the right. I never quite got it. The new version seems much more focused and calm. Was that because of customer feedback?
I have already mentioned the challenges regarding the interaction of human beings with computers. I think we're just at the beginning. During the development of Android Wear 2.0 we have evaluated the feedback very carefully. What we have seen again and again is that the function that allows you to see more details with a swipe to the side is very useful - but unfortunately it was not always intuitive. It was not always clear whether you had to swipe left or right. That's why we've rebuilt it and switched to a new "up and down" navigation system.
You mentioned that Smartwatches are still at a very early stage. Since the first iPhone came out, smartphones have hardly changed at all. They're still a brick with a big touch screen. Will it be similar with Smartwatches? Do the mini touchscreens remain on the wrist, or is there still room for improvement?
There is always room for improvement (laughs) - by the way, there is also room for improvement on smartphones. The wrist is the ideal place to view information. There are therefore good reasons why watches have always had this round shape. One reason, for example, is this bone here on the wrist. It's a problem. That's why round watches make so much sense. This way you get a maximum of space on the wrist. I see huge potential for technology that can be built into such watches. For example, sensors that help the device to understand context better. But we also see great potential in the areas of health and fitness thanks to new sensors.
And what about batteries?
Also there! All in all, there are still many opportunities for improvement in all these areas. In my opinion, however, the external design will hardly change radically. It has just been so successful and is very well adapted to our anatomy.
Google has launched the research project Soli, in which a radar captures finger movements. This allows you to operate a device without touching it. The first time I saw this, I knew I wanted it in a watch. Is that possible?
In the technology sector, innovation happens very quickly! It is often the case that the first demo version, which simply shows that something is technically possible, can often not be transferred into a finished product. Batteries are just one of many reasons. But in the future we will certainly see such and similar technologies. That's why it's so important that we program our software openly, so that our partners and developers can also use such technologies.
So watch manufacturers can also develop such basic control elements themselves and use them with Android Wear?
Exactly. With Android Wear 2.0 we introduced "Rotational Input". If you look at the new LG or Michael Kors' watches, you can turn the crown and scroll through menus. But it does not necessarily have to be a crown.
So it could also be a rotating bezel like on diving watches?
... or something like what you mentioned before. When we implement interfaces for new technologies, it is important that we look at this in the long term and consider what could happen in the next few years.
Speaking of sensors: TAG Heuer has omitted the pulse sensor in the new watch, which almost everyone has now had, because it is too inaccurate. Doctors and researchers have already told me that the wrist is not ideal for such measurements. How do you see this at Google?
I love how TAG Heuer has made its decision and what kind of sensor requirements they have. Since the watch has GPS and other motion sensors, it is a great watch for jogging. But of course, one of the greatest technical challenges today is to build precise pulse sensors for the wrist. And yes, it is possible, but you have to make compromises on design, among other things. In order to be able to measure really accurately, a photoplethysmogram is needed, which takes up space and you have to press it tightly on the skin.
You mentioned the new LG watches before. With Android phones, you had the Nexus program. You built flagship smartphones together with partners. The new LG watches remind me of the Nexus program. How closely do you work together with your watch partners when it comes to hardware?
When we develop new Android versions, we also need suitable devices. We can't develop the software without a watch in a vacuum and then send it to our partners and wish them good luck.
This can't work.
That's why we have so-called lead devices for every major update. For the first Android Wear we worked with LG, Motorola and Samsung. Now we have worked closely with LG on the LG Watch Style and LG Watch Sport. Therefore, it is no coincidence that they are the first to use a rotary input mechanism. We needed real hardware to try it out. But in essence, they are LG products.
The LG Watch Sport has the antennas in the watch band. As a result, you can't change the bands anymore. Changing bands is important, and Google has even developed its own system to make changing bands easier. Why this change of direction?
This is a good example of how much autonomy our partners have. The decision to put the antennas into the band comes from LG. They looked at the advantages and disadvantages of this decision and then decided on this variant.
The Swatch Group has announced its own operating system for smart watches for the end of 2018. Does that give you sleepless nights?
The more companies are interested in this topic, the better. This only encourages our belief that there is great potential here. But I honestly don't know exactly what they're planning.
No one knows.
However, I can talk about our approach. We see our role in enabling our partners to bring their brand and tradition to market. We can play an important role in this by creating a unified ecosystem.
Take the new Montblanc watch, for example. I think it's great, and I'm sure it will be a great success for Montblanc. In this category it is a great success to sell 100'000 pieces. If you now find yourself in the position of an app developer like Uber, Foursquare or Strava and have to decide which system you want to use your resources on, it may not necessarily make sense to develop an app for 100,000 users, as this is only a small fraction of all your users. Here we can help with a unified platform with standardized interfaces. That's why I'm so happy to be in Basel. We see ourselves as a partner of the watch industry.
This interview was conducted in English and published in German in the Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. For zeiPad.com the interview was translated back into English.