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Wear OS just got a huge overhaul, thanks to Samsung and Fitbit

Google IO 2021 WearOS
(Image credit: Google)

Wear OS is getting a major overhaul. An updated version of the smartwatch platform debuted during Google I/O 2021, promising a slew of new features and some serious surprises. (Still no Pixel Watch, though.)

Amid rumors the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 will switch from Tizen to Google's software, we've wondered how Wear OS would step up its game to suit one of the best smartwatches expected to arrive this year. The answer, apparently, is merging with Tizen. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

More of a comeback than innovation, now smartwatch makers licensing Wear OS can perhaps gain some momentum in the market. The latest version even borrows tools from the best Fitbit trackers, which officially entered the Google umbrella when the $2.1 billion acquisition closed earlier this year. Fitbit will soon make Wear OS watches of its own, too.

Here's everything else we know about what's coming to the next rendition of Wear OS. And what these changes mean for world of wearable computing.

Wear OS and Tizen merge: What does it mean?

When the rumors of a switch from Tizen to Wear OS began a few months ago, I argued in favor of the move. I thought Samsung should absolutely step in, since it manages to build some of the best Android phones using Google's smartphone software. So why couldn’t it do the same for Wear OS? 

Of course, Samsung couldn’t do it alone. Google has clearly been revamping its wearable platform behind-the-scenes, introducing more open-source options. There are still questions about how Google and Samsung will come to terms with developers, ensuring every app currently available on the Tizen store will also be listed on the Wear OS one. There will need to be compromises on Google Fit vs. Samsung Health and Google Assistant vs. Bixby, too. 

We'll get answers rather soon. I/O confirmed that the new version of Wear OS will come on the "next Galaxy Watch," which will be the Galaxy Watch 4 or Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 4 coming later this year. No news yet as to what it means for previous watches like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, though.

Google is still betting on Tiles

Google IO 2021 WearOS

(Image credit: Google)

Tiles are what let users customize their Wear OS interface, organizing pre-selected apps into a library you can scroll through quickly. I've felt indifferent towards Tiles. The system is better than not having a customizable app menu, but Apple's complications and Dock navigation is less cumbersome.

A specific edge the Apple Watch 6 and all the best Apple Watch models running the latest watchOS 7 software have over other smartwatches is the quantity of compatible apps. Most popular iOS app developers offer a watchOS version with information or features relevant to what users want to have on their wrist.

Google is sticking to Tiles, but it seems to be pushing more app developers to get on board. Now any developer can create Wear OS Tiles. This means users could soon see updates from their favorite third-party apps, not just Google's native ones. 

Speaking of Google's native apps, there are a few updates coming to them for Wear OS. Google Maps will offer turn-by-turn navigation, while Google Pay is providing support for over 200 public transport stations and dozens of countries. 

Fitbit joins the Wear OS party

The last major update coming to Wear OS doesn't come as a complete surprise. Google making use of its new entity's tools wasn't a question of if but when. And the company hasn't wasted time, considering the Fitbit acquisition only became official in January 2021.

Google didn't provide many details about which Fitbit features are entering the Wear OS platform. During I/O it said certain health and fitness metrics will be viewable on compatible smartwatches. It also said users will be able to see their daily health progress and earned rewards.

Eventually, every existing Fitbit feature should be found on a version of Wear OS. Google teased that premium Fitbit smartwatches will be built on Wear OS in the future, promising ambient integration with the greater Google ecosystem.

Wear OS outlook

Based on what we've heard at I/O, the upcoming Wear OS update could change the tides for the divisive platform. It's getting a major boost from software providers Google once called competitors, absorbing Tizen's users and borrowing Fitbit's industry-leading fitness tools. 

We knew Google had to transform its wearable approach with the Fitbit acquisition, so the update announcement doesn't come at a total surprise. Still, shy of launching its own physical smartwatch, Google didn't skimp on Wear OS's revival. Something tells me the days of the software being the bottom-side of smartwatch jokes is over.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.