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Wear OS will need a lot more than Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 to succeed

James Tsai's concept design for the much rumored Pixel Watch
(Image credit: James Tsai)

Two of the biggest rumors swirling around this week’s Google I/O developers conference is that Google could announce the Pixel Watch, and that the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 will ditch Tizen for Google’s Wear OS. But, it’s going to take a lot more than fancy hardware to convince people to pick up a Google-powered smartwatch.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of Wear OS, Google’s smartwatch operating system. And it looks like a lot of other people aren’t either. In 2020, the top smartwatch makers were, Apple, Xiaomi, Huawei, Samsung, and Fitbit, which combined made up about 75 percent of the market. None of those watches run Wear OS. (Technically, the Xiaomi Mi watch does, but it’s so heavily modified you may as well call it something else). 

Of the best-selling smartwatches on Amazon, none of the top 20 used Wear OS: It was either Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, or a no-name brand with a no-name OS. It was a similar story at Best Buy, where the first Wear OS smartwatch appears even lower on the best-sellers list. 

Wear OS: Google’s not-so-benign neglect

Google aspired for Wear OS to become a common operating system it could license to dozens, if not hundreds of smartwatch makers, like it does with Android. However, where Android has benefitted from regular updates and new features, Wear OS updates have come in trickles. 

The day before Google I/O, the company teased “a brand new Wear version,” but little else.

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As a result, there’s been little innovation with Wear OS smartwatches. Features such as blood oxygen monitoring and an ECG, which can be found on most of the best smartwatches, are only present in the TicWatch Pro 3, the first — and to date — only WearOS watch running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 4100 processor, which was introduced a year ago. 

Wear OS: Design is not enough

A Wear OS watch that simply looks awesome isn’t going to cut it, either. Fossil and its sub-brands — which include Skagen, Diesel, and Kate Spade — have dozens of smart-looking Wear OS smartwatches, but have barely made a dent. 

“Google needs its wearables platform to be competitive to make the Android ecosystem better,” said Avi Greengart of Techsponential. “To do so will require major investments, not just adding Google Assistant to Fitbit, tweaking WearOS, and hoping one of Fossil’s designs sparks a fashion trend.” 

Cheaper smartwatches with their pseudo-smartwatch operating systems — which promise longer battery life and good-enough performance for the price — are looking a lot better, too. Though cheap Apple Watch knockoffs are still plentiful, good design is being democratized, and larger companies such as OnePlus, Huawei, and even Wyze are developing inexpensive smartwatches. 

Samsung Galaxy Watch

The next Galaxy Watch could run on Google's Wear OS. (Image credit: Future)

And, for a smartwatch that’s less than $100 in many cases, the ability to load apps doesn’t matter as much as simply letting you know who’s calling and getting more than a day’s worth of battery life.

In most cases, you’re giving up an app ecosystem, but what you’re not giving up are things such as GPS, notifications, heart rate monitoring, blood oxygen sensors and other features you might expect on much more expensive devices — some of which aren’t even available for Wear OS. And, because these watches aren’t encumbered by WearOS, they typically will last longer on a charge. These cheap smartwatches don’t seem so cheap anymore.

One possible sign of improvement is that Google recently allowed third-party developers to create Tiles for its watches. At Google I/O, in fact, there’s a session called “Create your first Tile in Wear” on the agenda. But that’s one small step for a platform that hasn’t shown any meaningful change in a long time.