Maybe There's Hope for Wear OS Yet

Illustration for article titled Maybe There's Hope for Wear OS Yet
Image: Google

There are a lot of reasons why Google’s Wear OS as a smartwatch platform is so frustrating. It lacks the advanced health features you see from other wearables makers, nearly all the available watches are still reliant on outdated chips, and historically, Google hasn’t been the best at delivering timely updates. Recent attempts to fix all that have been encouraging, but still pretty minor. However, an Android Developers blog notes that third-party tiles are coming to Wear OS, and for once, I’m excited for the possibilities.

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Google introduced Tiles back in 2019 in one of the more substantial updates to the Wear OS platform. The swipeable widgets were, at that point, long overdue, considering that Samsung had been offering something similar for years. The only problem was you were limited to Google’s own Tiles and those were just OK at best. It was a marginally better experience, but one that still lagged behind the competition.

Opening up Tiles to third parties is great on two levels. First, it’ll let you swap out a Google Tile for a better one from your preferred app. Google Fit? No, thank you. Ideally you’d get to have a Strava Tile or something a little less basic. Of course, that would be dependent on these companies paying attention to Wear OS again. This brings me to my second point: Allowing developers to create their own tiles might incentivize them to create for the Wear OS platform.

For a while, one of the few strengths Wear OS had over Samsung’s Tizen OS was a more robust app ecosystem. And then competing platforms started to chip away at that lead. Spotify struck a standalone deal with Garmin and Samsung, but on Wear OS it remains a glorified remote. Hell, even Google put Wear OS second when it created a YouTube Music app for the Apple Watch first. That was back in October, and here we are in March 2021 with no sign of a Wear OS version. Why should developers prioritize Wear OS when Google won’t?

If custom Tiles triggers an increased interest in Wear OS and Google builds up that third-party ecosystem, then Wear OS might have a fighting chance. We still haven’t seen how Wear OS will perform on a watch powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 4100/4100+ SoC. Unlike Apple and Samsung’s offerings, Wear OS watches have been chugging along on old processors. Right now, only the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 has the latest chip, and while Mobvoi watches are good, it’s not exactly the most high-profile smartwatch brand. 

However, the leap from the 3100 chip—which is in most Wear OS watches right now—to the 4100 chip appears to be more substantial than the leap from the 2100 to the 3100. It promises 85% faster performance, 25% more battery, and better LTE connectivity—all of which could enable more creative experiences on your wrist.

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Then there’s the fact that Google recently closed on its acquisition of Fitbit. While the two companies will operate separately—for now—we’ve already seen Google Assistant come to Fitbit watches. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Fitbit’s know-how to find its way into Wear OS.

Perhaps this is why we’ve heard rumors that Samsung is considering ditching its proprietary Tizen OS software for Wear OS. If even a shred of that is true, it would indicate that Google has actual plans for its most neglected platform. Surely, there’s no way Samsung would simply abandon all the advanced health features it introduced with the Galaxy Watch 3 if Wear OS couldn’t support the transition. (Currently, the best Wear OS watches can do is monitor your heart rate. Some have built-in GPS.)

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There’s a chance that even with custom Tiles, developers won’t engage because they don’t think it’s worth the effort. Right now, custom Tiles are in alpha testing via the Jetpacks Tile library, and Google said the new options will be available to users later this spring when it “roll[s] out the corresponding Wear OS platform update.” A lot of things have to go right, but for the first time in a long while, it doesn’t feel like total doom and gloom for Wear OS.

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

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