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Even Google Puts Wear OS Second

Illustration for article titled Even Google Puts Wear OS Second
Image: Google

In what can only be described as a self-own, Google has released a YouTube Music app for the Apple Watch... before making an equivalent version for its own smartwatch platform, Wear OS.

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This is striking for a number of reasons. For starters, Google’s been working on rolling out a number of integrations for YouTube Music. Earlier this week, YouTube Music on Android TV got some major upgrades. Back in August, Google also made it so you could play personal playlists from YouTube Music via Google Assistant. As you might expect, in both these cases, Google prioritized its own platforms first. But that’s not the case with Wear OS.

Usually, Big Tech tends to push new features and updates to its own platforms first. For instance, Android users are the first to get a more robust set of third-party integrations with Google Assistant. iOS users will have to wait. And Apple is, well, Apple. You know it’s going to prioritize its own ecosystem first—to hell with everyone else. That’s why Google pushing a YouTube Music app for the Apple Watch first is a pretty big departure.

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But it’s not super surprising given the state of the smartwatch market. On the one hand, you have the Apple Watch. It’s by far the most popular smartwatch, with somewhere between 50-55% of the market, depending on which research agency is doing the math. This often comes as surprise, considering 74% of phones globally run on Android and the Apple Watch only supports iOS. In the first quarter of 2020, smartwatch sales actually saw a 20% increase in sales, with Apple, Samsung, and Garmin benefitting the most. Wear OS...not so much. According to 9to5 Google, even though more Wear OS watches were sold in 2020 than in 2019, its market share actually dropped from 23.7% to 22.6% during Q1 this year.

However, what this really means is that iOS users more often than not will just pick the Apple Watch because it’s really the best smartwatch option for them. The same can’t be said for Android users. Smartwatch options for Android are much more fragmented, and for years, there was no real Apple Watch alternative that Android users could truly rally behind. Samsung came closest, and its latest flagship, the Galaxy Watch 3, is probably the one Android smartwatch that can go toe-to-toe with Apple. The thing is, it doesn’t run Wear OS. It runs Samsung’s proprietary OS, Tizen, and it saves its best features for Samsung users, leaving non-Samsung users at a disadvantage.

This means that, more often than not, Android users are split between Samsung and more fitness-focused smartwatches that also run their own proprietary OS, including options from Garmin and Fitbit. In fact, the only other Android-friendly flagship smartwatch that can compete with the Apple Watch is the Fitbit Sense, which, again, doesn’t run on Wear OS.

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While 2019 was somewhat lackluster in terms of new flagship smartwatches, 2020 was a totally different story. Samsung came out strong with its Galaxy Watch 3. Fitbit also seemingly pulled a miracle out of nowhere with the Sense, Versa 3, and Inspire 2. Both companies managed to catch up to Apple and gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance for clinical electrocardiogram features. Garmin released the Forerunner 745, and Polar is revamping its Vantage line and put out a pretty great entry-level smartwatch with the Unite. Wear OS, by comparison, completely shat the bed.

Despite Qualcomm introducing a new Snapdragon Wear 4100 chip, which is expected to improve the Wear OS watch experience, there’s only one smartwatch powered by it that’s available this holiday season: Mobvoi’s TicWatch Pro 3. Fossil, which is the most prominent maker of Wear OS watches, is launching a slightly cheaper version of its Gen 5 watch lineup powered by the last-gen processor, the Snapdragon Wear 3100. This means the earliest we’re likely to see real advancements in Wear OS watches is spring of next year. The updates Google rolled out for Wear OS this fall were underwhelming, focusing more on streamlining the interface than enabling more of the advanced features we’ve come to expect in flagship smartwatches.

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It’s not that Google doesn’t see the value in wearables. The company’s acquisition of Fitbit is proof of that, as is all the lip service it pays to “ambient computing.” It’s just that any real improvements to Wear OS will take time. Hell, it might even just be easier at this point to scrap it and start anew, should regulators approve the Fitbit deal.

In the meantime, it appears that even Google knows it has little to gain by putting Wear OS first. That’s sad, because it just means that Android users, particularly those without Samsung phones, have the fewest choices when it comes to a great smartwatch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon.

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Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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