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Apple leapfrogged Google's Chromecast with now playing watch notifications

Another case of Google had started doing it first, but stopped midway.

Published onSeptember 18, 2023

android shared cast controls notification pixel watch no notification
Rita El Khoury / Android Authority

As Apple introduced the new Watch Series 9 this week, two features struck me because I’ve wanted them on Wear OS smartwatches for years and I couldn’t believe that Apple was introducing them before Google: on-device Siri commands and now-playing HomePod notifications. Let’s focus on the latter for now.

Apple will let you control HomePod music from the screen that's always on you — your smartwatch. That's super useful.

Apple’s Watch Series 9 and HomePod integration is based on the watch’s second-generation Ultra-wideband (UWB) chip, which detects nearby devices and measures how far they are and in which direction. When the Watch Series 9 recognizes a nearby HomePod within a four-meter distance, it’ll immediately surface a card to the top of the widget stack. If nothing is playing, the card will suggest music, podcasts, and audiobooks to play. But if something is already playing, it’ll show that and let you control it.

apple watch homepod now playing notification

Isn’t that oddly reminiscent of something Google Chromecasts already do? It’s been a decade since Google launched the Chromecast and with it the option to control music playing on a nearby cast target straight from your phone. Google’s tech uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it’s not as precise as UWB, but it has worked well for years. Whenever something starts playing on a Google Nest smart speaker or hub, you get a notification on your phone to control it. It’s simple and efficient.

The issue with Google’s implementation is that the notification doesn’t carry over to your smartwatch — the one controller that’s always physically on and with you, even inside your home. This annoyed me with older Wear OS watches, but it irked me even more when the Pixel Watch was launched and the feature was nowhere to be found on it. All Google had to do was carry over the Play Services notification that pops up on your phone to your smartwatch, as it does with any other application. It didn’t.

Google Chromecasts have shown a now-playing notification on nearby phones for a decade. Not on smartwatches, though.

Spotify Connect helps fix this oversight, but it obviously only works if you’re listening to music via Spotify and the now-playing notification only shows up by default if you start casting from your phone. It won’t pop up if you use voice commands on your speaker or if you start playback from a computer or a tablet.

Google Pixel Watch Spotify 1
Kaitlyn Cimino / Android Authority

There’s a glimmer of hope, though. Rumors suggest that the Pixel Watch 2 will have a UWB chip, though we don’t know if it’ll only be used for Find My Device or if Google will allow it to control nearby UWB-touting speakers and displays like the Pixel Tablet (and a rumored upcoming Nest Hub with UWB). Other hidden Android code bits revealed that Google is working on tap-to-transfer to quickly move playing music or video from a phone to a nearby Pixel Tablet or Nest hub/speaker, but again, nothing about transferring from a smartwatch. Nothing is certain, but there’s hope that Google is tightening up the integration between smartwatches and smart speakers and displays.

All Google had to do is allow this now-playing notification to show up on your wrist too. No fancy UWB needed.

Even if Google would roll out its own implementation in October, I’d still be a bit miffed that we’d need UWB to get the simplest part of this — now playing notifications — working or that you’d need to be within a few meters to get the notification like Apple requires. What if you’re not in the same room? The nearby casting notification has been here for a decade; it has worked well for years despite only using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s a shame that we’d need newer and flashier tech when all Google had to do was allow this notification to surface on watches.

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