After years of neglect and incremental updates, yesterday Google dropped its most meaningful wearables announcement since it rebranded from Android Wear to Wear OS in 2018. Going forward, Wear OS will take the best parts of Samsung’s Tizen OS and Google-owned Fitbit to create a new unified platform for wearables. It’s a massive shift with huge potential, and it’s not overdramatic to say this could change the entire smartwatch landscape.
But combining three platforms into one is no small feat, especially when you look at the current fragmented state of Android-friendly smartwatches. If it’s going to succeed, Google has got to nail this transition.
To be blunt, there was no way to easily, cheaply, or quickly fix the mess Wear OS was in. The platform had stagnated for years, in large part because Wear OS watches were hamstrung by Qualcomm’s outdated Snapdragon Wear chips. (Actually, they still are.) While Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit were adding cellular connectivity, advanced FDA-cleared heart health features, stress- and sleep-tracking, and always-on displays, Wear OS was limping along, adding a handful of these features months and sometimes years after the fact. Case in point: The first major Wear OS watch with LTE just launched a few months ago, on a single carrier, and it was underwhelming. Any approach to fix the platform would’ve been a herculean effort, so this partnership with Samsung is nothing short of miraculous.
Theoretically, this unified platform is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Fitbit, which has struggled as cheaper competitors flooded the budget wearable market, now has greater resources to create a bonafide premium flagship smartwatch that isn’t a souped-up fitness tracker. Google gets access to a treasure trove of consumer health data, plus the benefit of Fitbit’s hardware expertise, particularly in terms of battery life. Samsung gets to build out its third-party app offerings, its biggest weakness when it comes to wearables. Google gets to take what works in Tizen and patch the myriad of tiny grievances that frustrate Wear OS users. Android users get to finally have a shot at a smartwatch that can knock the Apple Watch down a peg. (Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 came close, but alas, its best features were limited to people with Samsung phones.)
So far, the Wear OS emulation in the Android Studio Beta is promising, both in terms of design and function. The improvements Google outlined yesterday weren’t the most impressive—faster performance, better battery life, cellular capabilities, and more advanced health features are the bare minimum in 2021. However, it at least signaled the gap between Wear OS watches and other wearables could soon close. Even so, there’s one major hurdle that could derail everything.
A lot is riding on how smoothly Google, Samsung, and Fitbit can meld these three separate platforms into one. A large part of that is how they’ll transition existing users into the new era. In a blog post, Samsung said that older Galaxy Watches would get “three years of software support after the product launch.” Well, that should be comforting to anyone who bought a Galaxy Watch 3, which launched less than a year ago. However, the Galaxy Watch Active and Active 2 debuted 2.5 and two years ago, respectively, meaning they don’t have much time left. By the time this new platform rolls out to consumers, it might already be more than three years since the Galaxy Watch’s launch. Another question is whether the new software will be backwards-compatible with Tizen-powered watches at all. It’s also unclear how long other developers will maintain their Tizen apps now that the cat is out of the bag—if they do at all.
It’s also a question that Google hasn’t answered for current Wear OS watches. Gizmodo asked Google if and when current Wear OS users could expect to upgrade to the new platform. A Google spokesperson said that the company would have “more updates to share on timelines once the new version launches later this year.” It’s not unreasonable to expect consumers to eventually upgrade, but it never goes well when customers feel like they’ve been coerced into upgrading soon after buying a relatively new gadget. It also depends on how soon third-party companies can update their product lines. If that’s not possible by fall, how long will Wear OS users have to wait? Plus, in the year since the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform launched, there’s only been a single smartwatch that uses it. We’ve simply got no idea how well it handles the current Wear OS, let alone the new version.
It’s also a question Fitbit has to answer for its Sense and Versa smartwatches, which run on its proprietary Fitbit OS. For now, Fitbit is still its own thing, but who knows how long that will last? Unlike Samsung’s Tizen watches, Fitbit OS is an RTOS-based OS that likely won’t be compatible with the new platform. How long does Fitbit OS have left, considering that CEO James Park hinted that Fitbit’s future premium watches would run on the new platform?
These questions also extend to the three companies’ disparate services like Samsung Pay, Google Pay, and Fitbit Pay. While Fitbit Pay is probably not long for this world, I imagine Sense and Versa 3 owners won’t want to ditch products they bought within the last year. It’s also unclear what’s going to happen to Samsung’s ecosystem, which includes Samsung Health, Samsung Pay, and Bixby.
There’s no technological reason that these services and apps can’t play well together like they do on smartphones. It’s just never been done with wearables before. So far, flagship smartwatches have been a means for companies to push their own ecosystem, prioritizing their own services and devices over others. This will most definitely have to change if Wear OS is to be a truly unified platform. Because really, who wouldn’t love Google Assistant on a Samsung Watch? (Sorry not sorry Bixby.)
Planned obsolescence is a thing, and these are temporary problems. It won’t be an issue with future Fitbit, Samsung, and Wear watches. But if the new Wear OS is to succeed, it’s crucial that Google, Fitbit, and Samsung don’t alienate their existing customers by forcing their hand before they’re ready to make the change. Sonos tried that last year when it retired its legacy products to usher in a new era of products and software. The backlash was intense. Some people are going to hop aboard the chaos train with joyful abandon. Others will have to be convinced that giving up something they’re comfortable with and like is a good thing.
Wear OS already has a not-so-great reputation and a history of being underwhelming. The last thing you want is to botch this transition, piss off three customer bases, scare off third-party app and watch makers, and leave Android users with no alternative than to embrace budget fitness trackers or the Apple Watch. This is the rare opportunity for Wear OS to wipe the slate clean, and it’s imperative that it’s not wasted. I’m not sure Wear OS will get another one.