Huawei Sure Picked an Odd Time to Launch a New Smartwatch

Illustration for article titled Huawei Sure Picked an Odd Time to Launch a New Smartwatch
Image: Huawei

The Huawei Watch 3 is here, and as far as smartwatches go, it looks pretty good on paper. It’s just that, on the heels of Samsung giving up on Tizen and partnering with Google for a unified wearable platform, this doesn’t feel like an auspicious time to launch a flagship smartwatch running a proprietary OS.

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To be clear, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this smartwatch. The Watch 3 (which will cost £349.99 in the UK when it launches on June 18) has nearly everything you’d expect from a modern wearable aside from FDA-cleared ECGs. Design-wise, it looks like contemporary Android-friendly smartwatches, with a circular 1.43-inch AMOLED display and a rotating crown. There are sporty and “classic” versions, as well as a more premium Watch 3 Pro (£499.99) that has a metal strap, longer battery life, and better GPS. For health features, it boasts SpO2 sensors, continuous heart rate monitoring, and a new temperature sensor—something that’s still relatively uncommon as far as smartwatches go. It’s swim-proof and supports reverse wireless charging. You even get 4G LTE connectivity, built-in GPS, and, supposedly, voice and video call support. Plus, even with cellular on, Huawei’s promising three days of battery life—14 days if you’re willing to forgo LTE. There’s a proprietary app store, a digital assistant called Celia, a handwashing timer, and gesture controls similar to those introduced on the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and Apple’s forthcoming Assistive Touch.

In all fairness, there’s not much else Huawei could’ve done. The Huawei ban has cut the company’s access to Google’s Android operating system and Google Mobile Services. Without Google, Huawei was backed into a corner, and Harmony OS is the natural result. It’s just that we’ve seen this playbook before and frankly, when it comes to smartwatches, it hasn’t worked.

The Cautionary Tale of Tizen OS

At Google I/O last month, Samsung officially threw in the towel on Tizen, its proprietary smartwatch OS, in favor of a “unified” version of WearOS. At the same event, Fitbit CEO James Park hinted that its future premium smartwatches would run on this unified platform as well—which raises questions as to how long FitbitOS will continue to exist. The Fitbit thing makes sense. Google did, after all, plunk down $2.1 billion to acquire the company and the deal finally went through earlier this year. Tizen? That’s a whole different story.

In 2014, Samsung moved its smartwatches off Wear OS (then Android Wear) to its own proprietary system. Given that Wear OS has had numerous ups and downs, Tizen OS was one of the main benefits of picking a Samsung watch over one that ran Wear OS. Tizen was snappy, and Samsung watches could do things that other Wear OS watches simply couldn’t. Samsung’s smartwatches were also a way for the company to push its ecosystem of products, promising the same kind of seamlessness that Apple promises with its lineup. Except few people cared about Bixby, Samsung Pay was limited to Galaxy phones, and it was a major problem that the watches’ best features weren’t available to all Android users. And the real kicker? Tizen’s third-party app offerings simply weren’t there, even though Samsung did its damnedest to convince developers otherwise.

You can’t help but look at Tizen’s trajectory and wonder if Huawei isn’t doing the exact same thing with Harmony OS. It’ll probably boil down to two things: third-party app support, and whether Huawei can convince Android users to ditch a well-established platform just because Wear OS is going through some growing pains. (Hell will freeze over before it wins over iOS users when the Apple Watch is the dominant smartwatch out there, even if it’s only available to iPhone users.)

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Why Would Huawei Succeed Where Others Failed?

Samsung couldn’t hack it when it came to third-party app support, but that might not be the case for Huawei. Its App Gallery, for example, isn’t lacking for apps the way the Tizen app store was. Supposedly, Huawei’s App Gallery has over 530 million active monthly users. Deezer, Lufthansa, TikTok, Tidal, Adidas, and some other recognizable names are on there—and Huawei is aggressively courting developers outside of China to sign on. Major apps like Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, and Facebook aren’t available, though there are APK mirrors and other workarounds. And that’s for Huawei’s phones. It’s unclear how robust its wearable app offerings will be, but the only recognizable app logo presented for the Watch 3 was… the Emirates airline. This might fly in China, where people aren’t as attached to Google’s apps—but it’s a big question whether this watch will have broader international appeal. Especially if Samsung’s forthcoming Wear OS watches (and future Fitbit watches) knock it out of the park.

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All this also applies to whatever ecosystem of gadgets Huawei’s trying to build out now with Harmony OS. It might succeed in markets where Google doesn’t have such a vise grip, but this late in the game? It’s going to be an uphill battle to convince Western markets to ditch all the Apple, Google Nest, or Amazon Echo gadgets they’ve already invested in.

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Look, I’m not saying the Huawei Watch 3 and Watch 3 Pro will be bad. Huawei’s previous smartwatches were decent offerings, albeit they could be a pain to get for U.S. consumers. (Personally, I thought the Huawei Watch 2 was the best Android Wear 2.0 watch back in 2017.) So long as the Watch 3 doesn’t go and pull a OnePlus Watch debacle, it’s got impressive enough specs to be a good Android-friendly, Wear OS alternative. We just haven’t seen a successful alternate platform to Android or iOS thus far—and not for lack of trying. Companies like Samsung and Microsoft aren’t bit players. They have deep coffers, international brand recognition, and die-hard fans—but neither succeeded in unseating Android-based platforms. Samsung and Microsoft also didn’t have to contend with trade wars. True, it’s not like Huawei has other options so long as this ban is in place, but the odds don’t seem stacked in its favor.

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

DISCUSSION

emba4
emba4

i wish i hadnt waited now, i thought we were going to see a nice successor to the GT2 Pro this looks ok i guess but has drastically shorter battery life and is twice the price of the current GT2 Pro.

i get that it technically does more but i dont really need those things, i dont phone people anyway and dont generally have the need to go anywhere without my phone so the whole esim thing isnt much use to me and im not a fitness type either, i just want a nice looking watch that i can read my notifications on and change tracks on my music apps while having a battery life upwards of a week (the pebble time steel did all of these things magnificently)