If you can't beat ’em, join ’em. That's Google's strategy for the ailing smartwatch platform it launched back in 2014. To better compete with the likes of Apple, Google has a new three-pronged plan to invigorate Wear OS, and it involves partnerships with two brands it previously competed against in the wearable category: Samsung and Fitbit.
First, Wear OS will launch later this year as a unified platform co-developed with Samsung, merging select features from the Tizen operating system the Korean company uses for its Galaxy smartwatches. That means future Samsung watches will run Wear instead of Tizen. Second, Google will add more of its own apps to the Wear platform and will update its existing apps to give them more robust capabilities. Finally, Wear's health and fitness features have been rebuilt from the ground up with input from Samsung and Fitbit, respectively, and Fitbit Wear smartwatches are on the way. (Google completed its acquisition of Fitbit earlier this year, so now the Wear team and the Fitbit teams are under the same roof.)
The announcement came at Google IO, the company's annual developer conference. The event is virtual for the first time ever, joining a spate of other tech conferences that have avoided in-person gatherings for more than a year.
Originally named Android Wear when it first debuted in 2014, the Wear OS smartwatch platform has been made available by Google for any watch manufacturer to use, similar to the arrangement Google has with smartphone manufacturers who want to use its Android operating system. But unlike Android, where a phonemaker can “skin” an Android phone's software to match its brand, companies using Wear didn't have much control over the look and feel of the OS. There wasn't room to tailor the experience to any specific brand. It's likely why Samsung opted to go its own way and develop its own wearable-device software after testing the waters with just one Android Wear smartwatch.
Over the years, Google was slow to introduce new features to Wear OS, and the number of manufacturer partners for the OS dwindled. Samsung, on the other hand, saw success with its Galaxy smartwatches despite the gamble of loading them up with its in-house Tizen OS. However, Tizen has its own weaknesses too—namely, the lack of available apps in Samsung's bespoke app store for Tizen. Wear OS smartwatches may not have been popular, but at least the platform has some desirable apps.
That brings us to the new unified software platform that Google developed with Samsung. It's technically a new version of Wear OS, although Google hasn't yet decided on its name. The company has dropped the “OS” and has started calling it “Wear,” though a spokesperson says we'll see more finality on the name later this year. More importantly, this new version offers manufacturers more flexibility with hardware and software, meaning a Wear smartwatch's interface can be made to feel more consistent with a brand's smartphone and provide a more homogenous experience. A Google-made reference user interface is also available for manufacturers that don't want to make any tweaks.
“We think this will be great for the overall ecosystem,” says Björn Kilburn, Google's lead project manager on Wear. “It'll be good for all devicemakers; it'll be good for developers that we bring these two things together.”
Google also leveraged Samsung's help in making Wear more battery efficient. Most Wear OS smartwatches have historically lasted only a day or two before needing a recharge. Kilburn couldn't offer specifics about battery life gains, which largely depend on the individual smartwatch, but he says many of the workloads that need to run all the time on the watch, like heart-rate sensing, have now been moved to more power-efficient environments in the hardware. You'll soon be able to track your heart rate all day “without killing the battery,” he says.
The platform runs more smoothly too. Kilburn cited up to 30 percent faster performance, with animations and transitions that look more fluid. These tests are based on watches using the “latest chipsets,” but Google did not confirm if that meant it's been testing the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 4100 processors that launched last year. Samsung uses its own Exynos processors in its Galaxy smartwatches, so if Wear is optimized for these chips, it might mean more diversity in the smartwatch chipset market (and a potential new revenue stream for Samsung), as the bulk of Wear OS smartwatches are powered by Qualcomm.
Some features from Tizen OS are going to be directly ported over to Wear as well, such as Samsung's watch face designer tool. It will be a part of Wear later this year, and many existing watch faces will make the jump with it. That also means Samsung will no longer make Tizen-powered smartwatches. Its future Galaxy smartwatches will run Wear, and the company says it will continue offering familiar experiences, such as the popular rotating bezel that lets a user navigate the software interface without touching the screen.
The biggest benefit for Samsung? App support. By nixing Tizen, Kilburn says developers don't need to build apps for as many platforms and can largely focus on Wear and Apple's WatchOS, just like how developers currently build mobile apps for Android and iOS. Thanks to some changes Google has made in its development tools, software-makers should now find it easier and faster to build Wear apps. Kilburn says there will be a lot “more investment and innovation coming to consumers in the form of apps.”
Jisun Park, corporate vice president and head of mobile platform and solutions at Samsung Research America, echoed that sentiment in an email. “Further collaboration with Google also allows us to expand our ecosystem for developers and partners so that they can take the wearable experience to even greater heights,” Park wrote. As for existing Galaxy smartwatches, Samsung says it's committed to providing Galaxy Store support and three years of software updates since the product's launch. Your existing health data can be exported to newer watches, but more details will come at a later date.
The greater degree of customization in Wear now afforded to manufacturers does come with a price: the responsibility of delivering software updates. It means new features from Google for the platform may not be available to all Wear smartwatches immediately, similar to how new Android features may or may not roll out to older Android phones. Fragmentation has been a major problem with Android as manufacturers have neglected to issue updates, or have been slow to get around to them.
Better Google Apps
The Apple Watch comes with a host of Apple-made apps, each of which offers similar functionality to its respective iPhone app. That's not the case with Google's Wear platform, and it's a shortcoming the company is trying to fix. Kilburn says the team is rebuilding Google's apps in Wear with updated guidelines from Material design, the company's software design language that ensures apps look and behave in a way that's consistent. This strategy will bring new features to the next generation of Wear smartwatches that more closely match the features found in the respective apps on an Android phone.
Google Maps, for example, will offer turn-by-turn navigation in a new user interface that will also work even if your phone is not with you. YouTube Music will finally debut on the platform and will include offline listening (Google says Spotify will also add offline listening). Google Pay support on Wear is expanding to 26 new countries, bringing the total to 37, and will feature a redesign. Many of these changes will arrive later this year alongside the launch of the new Wear, but some updates—like a redesigned Google Assistant—will come in early 2022.
Wear also has some new software navigation tricks. A double press of a button will now instantly switch to a previously open app, and a new Recents menu lets you quickly hop back into recently used apps. Wear's Tiles, which are widgets that sit in a carousel next to the watch face and offer the type of information that can be soaked up with just a glance (like the weather or your next calendar event), are also getting an upgrade: Any third-party developer can now make one.
Another big reason Google lags behind the smartwatch competition is its lackluster health and fitness portfolio. In recent years, Apple has added electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) measurements into its watches, and rumors suggest blood glucose monitoring will be the next new health feature in the upcoming Series 7 smartwatch.
But Google now owns Fitbit, and it's putting the wearable company's prowess in this area to use. Your next Google-powered smartwatch will come with many of the same features found on Fitbit devices right now, such as health tracking and workout progress, as well as those on-wrist celebrations that provide extra motivation. Fitbit will also produce premium smartwatches running Wear in the future.
However, features like ECG and SpO2 aren't baked into Wear natively. “Any of those more specialized functionalities like the ECG will be up to the manufacturer," Kilburn says. "We've enabled them to bring that kind of innovation to the marketplace, so it would be up to the specific device launch.” Both Samsung and Fitbit offer SpO2 and ECG tracking on existing watches and trackers, so it's likely (though not confirmed) that those functions will still be present when their respective Wear watches debut later.
Kilburn also says Google has also worked with Fitbit (and Samsung) to rebuild the underlying health and fitness framework in Wear to make activity tracking more accurate, and to make it easier for developers to gather and use the tracking data. "In the past, they'd have to go all over the operating system to collect the different pieces of data, but we're bringing them all into one framework they'll be able to use.”
Since Fitbit's app will also land on Wear, future Wear smartwatch owners can choose whether to use Fitbit's app or Google Fit to track fitness data. Kilburn couldn't comment on future plans, but says anyone who chooses a Fitbit Wear smartwatch will “continue to have a great experience” with Fitbit.
As for future updates to Wear, Kilburn didn't say if Google will follow a yearly cycle of updates like it does with Android, or how Apple debuts a new watchOS version every year. Instead, expect a more frequent cadence of updates.
Playing Catch Up
It should be noted that while Google announced that it closed its Fitbit acquisition in January following approval from the European Union's antitrust commission—with conditions that Google cannot use the health data of Fitbit users for advertising and has to keep Fitbit and Google data separate—it doesn't mean the US Department of Justice has automatically signed off on it.
A Google spokesperson says it complied with the department's review and the "agreed upon waiting period expired without their objection,” but the DOJ's review is still ongoing, and it has enforcement tools it can utilize if it finds the acquisition harms competition.
Nevertheless, even though it's been seven years since Google launched its smartwatch platform, the company doesn't have much to show for it. As of the fourth quarter of 2020, Wear OS counts for a measly 2.7 percent of the market, according to analysis firm Counterpoint Research. Apple saw a 19 percent growth in global smartwatch sales in the same period and now commands 40 percent of the market share. Samsung jumped to 10 percent market share, and Fitbit was stagnant at 7 percent. Google now owns that 7 percent, but it still needs Samsung to grow the Wear platform.
“Apple obviously dominates, but Samsung is the clear number two player,” says Jeff Fieldhack, research director at Counterpoint Research. “They have brand recognition. They sell by far the most connected devices, which is kind of the trend also—cellular connectivity. By having a modem in it, you can have a standalone device and don't need your companion smartphone."
Fieldhack thinks there's a good chance that bringing Samsung, Fitbit, and even fashion brands such as Fossil under the Wear family will spur greater competition and renew developer interest in the platform. “Like smartphones and tablets, as you get higher volumes, costs will go down and you'll get developers behind it more, so the bigger numbers will definitely help Wear OS.”
With Samsung and Fitbit set to debut new smartwatches, and rumors of Google making its own Pixel smartwatch, Wear may finally be able to carve out a space in the market as a worthwhile competitor.
“We really believe the smartwatch is a key step in the next evolution in mobile computing," Kilburn says.