Comment: Wear OS finally has a chance to thrive

Comment: Wear OS finally has a chance to thrive

Google’s Wear OS platform has long been the laughingstock of the wearable community, but the tides are finally changing. After years of neglect, Wear OS is finally getting a chance.

There’s been plenty more to get excited about in the world of Wear OS over the past year. The Snapdragon Wear 4100 series beefed up Fossil’s latest generation of watches to be quite capable, and the Galaxy Watch 4 ushered in Wear OS 3. Plus, Google is finally making a Pixel Watch!

But today saw the biggest boost for the Wear OS market yet – Qualcomm is finally making a good chip. It’s one of two things that clearly gives Wear OS a chance to grow and thrive.

Qualcomm trades the bare minimum for the maximum

The impact of today’s reveal of the Snapdragon W5+ Gen 1 chip cannot be underestimated.

Qualcomm has been the key chip name for Android smartwatches since the platform was known as Android Wear, but the company has always featured the bare minimum.

The 2016 Snapdragon Wear 2100 had some smartwatch optimizations but was based on older technology. The chip used a 28nm process, a far cry from the 14nm process used by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 of the same year. At the time, it was largely correct. Android Wear wasn’t particularly demanding, and the smartwatch market was still in its infancy.

Two years later, however, Qualcomm doubled down on its use of this old technology with the Snapdragon Wear 3100, which was basically the same chip but with a co-processor to offload a few tasks. The pressure was there at that time. The 2018 Snapdragon 845 used a 10nm process, and Google’s platform was more demanding in terms of performance. A 28nm chip actively held back Wear OS, and even doubling the amount of RAM was only going so far to improve performance.

The Fossil Sport was the first Snapdragon Wear 3100 watch

With Qualcomm’s model set, that meant waiting two years to roll out the next chip. That timing didn’t work out at all, given that the smartwatch market really started to grow in 2019 and COVID hit in 2020, only further driving the demand for wearables, but leaving Wear OS behind. Qualcomm finally released the Snapdragon Wear 4100 series later in 2020 with a much improved 12nm process, but it was too late to capitalize. Mobvoi was the only 4100 series customer for nearly a full year, and Fossil’s deals on the 4100+ were mediocre at best. Google had moved on to bigger things, working on its Wear OS 3 upgrade which was announced in 2021 and later debuted the excellent Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 series.

Now Qualcomm has finally turned things around. The Snapdragon W5 and W5+ are built on a much more efficient 4nm process with big promises of performance and battery gains – and frankly, we believe them. The Galaxy Watch 4’s 5nm chip has surpassed what Qualcomm has offered before, so a Samsung-leading Snapdragon chip should at least be in the same ballpark.

And the important thing here is that this chip is not restricted to one device. Samsung still hasn’t made the Galaxy Watch 4 series Exynos W920 available to anyone, but the Snapdragon W5 series will be available to virtually everyone. Mobvoi and Oppo are already on board, and it’s hard to imagine Fossil not jumping at the chance in the next few months or so.

Chips have always been the central problem of Wear OS. Google’s platform itself was pretty good, but held back by poor performance that also hampered apps. But it was still a “chicken and egg” situation. Qualcomm had no incentive to make better chips for smartwatches that people weren’t buying, and people didn’t want to buy smartwatches held back by these chip-related issues.

Finally, Qualcomm has stepped up to fix the problem, and combined with Wear OS 3, it’s a perfect storm to give the platform the headroom it always needs.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4
The Galaxy Watch 4 was a sign of things to come

Google gives Wear OS the Android model

But beyond the chip, which again has always been the core issue, Google is also making Wear OS a much more flexible platform.

When it was created as Android Wear, Google explicitly stated that its OEM partners would not be able to modify the platform like they do with traditional Android phones. An Android Wear smartwatch would be identical in core software whether it comes from Motorola, Samsung, Sony, LG or anyone else – note: wowthere were so many partners at the time.

It’s a rule that Google has slowly eroded over time. Some partners would include custom apps, others would change system colors. Mobvoi has started to include its own app drawer in recent models, and over the past couple of years Google has opened up heavy customization to some overseas partners, like Oppo.

But Wear OS 3 is the real tipping point.

Samsung was our first sign of what was to come. The Galaxy Watch 4 runs a version of Wear OS that’s unrecognizable from Google’s flavor. It doesn’t use the Wear OS app and everything works differently. The only stuff that makes its way are the Play Store, some key system stuff, and apps – sound familiar?

Wear OS very clearly adopts the Android model, where Google provides a basic operating system that its partners have the power to adjust according to their needs. Some will do heavy customization, like Samsung. Others, like Montblanc, seem happier with Google’s designs.

Wear OS 3 Montblanc
Montblanc has its own setup app, so does everyone

But apart from the watch itself, it also allows smartwatch partners to better connect with their customers. A single app will no longer be used for each smartwatch. Samsung has its own. Montblanc has its own. Fossil works alone, and everyone else will too; even Google has a “Pixel Watch” app in the works. While this creates a headache for people like me who use multiple smartwatches, it’s great news for the average customer.

Smartwatch makers can create an app that fully encompasses the experience they want to create, from pairing to management to fitness.

Will it work?

But the real question here comes down to where we go from here – the stars are aligned for Wear OS to finally see meaningful growth and success. But have we already done too much damage? Samsung is clearly happy and finding success with its move to Google’s platform, but can Mobvoi, Fossil and other brands really recover from years of fending for themselves?

Really, we’ll have to wait and see. But one thing is clear – there’s never been a better time to look for a smartwatch to go with your Android phone.

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