Google’s Wear OS software platform for smartwatches has been in hibernation for a while now. The Play Store and Google-made apps are still functional, and new watches are arriving on a steady schedule, but most app developers aren’t interested in the platform. Google has also neglected to bring its newer features and services to Wear OS, and long-standing bugs with Google Assistant and other components are still prevalent.
There has never been a clear answer for why Google dropped the ball with Wear OS, besides guesses about poor device sales (Apple continues to outsell all its competitors). The company’s acquisition of Fitbit started speculation that Wear OS could be overhauled or replaced, using software and technology initially developed by Fitbit. However, even though the purchase was announced in November 2019, various regulatory hurdles prevented the acquisition from closing until January of this year. If Google was planning an overhaul for Wear OS, the software would likely stay in maintenance mode — but that’s not what is happening.
Google recently published the schedule for this month’s Google I/O developers conference, and for the first time since 2018 (though there was no event in 2020), there are multiple events dedicated to Wear OS. Google’s planning a ‘What’s new with Wear’ session, as well as a workshop about building Tiles. The two sessions aren’t definitive evidence that Google is serious about Wear, but there has been other encouraging news. Earlier this month, Google released its Gboard keyboard for Wear OS watches — the first time in years Google has brought a new app to the platform.
It’s great to see some level of interest in Wear OS again from Google, but there’s still a long way to go. Google Assistant has been a buggy mess on most watches, third-party app development has largely ceased, and some of Google’s own apps could benefit from updates. There also hasn’t been any official way of storing music offline on Wear OS watches since Google Play Music was discontinued; YouTube Music is still missing, even though an Apple Watch app was released in October 2020.
More importantly, Wear OS needs new hardware. Qualcomm, the supplier for most chipsets used by Wear OS watches, has been hesitant to develop new wearable hardware. Until last year, the Wear 3100 was the company’s best chipset for wearable devices, which was built on an aging 28nm architecture. Qualcomm finally released updated hardware last year, the Wear 4100 and 4100+, which delivered much-needed performance and usability improvements.
There’s still only one Wear OS watch with the Wear 4100 chipset: the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3. Motorola is reportedly licensing its name for a smartwatch that will feature the chipset, but a bigger player in the industry, Fossil, has yet to update any of its watches to use the new hardware. Worse yet, there are no Wear OS watches at all with the high-end Wear 4100+. The upgraded chip promises full-color ambient displays, enhanced sports tracking, and other features that the platform could benefit from. If third-party manufacturers aren’t interested in selling watches with the Wear 4100+, then Google needs to step up to the plate with its own watch.
Now that Wear OS is seemingly here to say — at least until Google can figure out its long-term wearable strategy with Fitbit under its belt — we need more watches with the latest hardware. The platform has struggled for years on under-powered watches with slow processors and under 1GB of RAM, but the TicWatch Pro 3 has proven the OS can run well with the right hardware. We just need more (and better) watches. Maybe Samsung’s next smartwatches could be the push that the platform desperately needs.
Featured image: Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3