Google’s smartwatch platform, Wear OS, hasn’t received a whole lot of love from the company, but frankly, the neglect is starting to get ridiculous. According to 9to5Google, new Wear OS watch owners are now finding it difficult to install certain apps after the company told developers it was doing away with its legacy app installation method.
To back up a bit, in 2017 Google changed the way Wear OS (then Android Wear 2.0) users downloaded third-party apps onto their smartwatches. Previously, smartwatch apps were bundled with phone versions. But Google then introduced a standalone, on-wrist app store. The move was meant to make Wear OS watches less reliant on phones to function, but the old method was still an option, so if you wanted, you could figure out which apps were installed on your Wear OS watch via the Apps on Your Phone section of the Play Store.
However, last month Google apparently sent out an email to developers saying this legacy embedded model would be kaput as of March 10. In its email, Google said it was doing away with the embedded legacy app model because it added excessive bloat to the APK for non-smartwatch users. It also revealed that apps using this method would disappear from the Apps on Your Phone section and would also be undiscoverable on the on-wrist Play Store. Developers were also encouraged to migrate to the newer multi-APK model so their apps would be discoverable and reduce bloat on phone apps.
A standalone, on-wrist app store isn’t a bad thing. (Hell, Apple only embraced one with the Series 5.) However, if you’ve ever used Wear OS, searching for apps that you absolutely know to exist doesn’t always work the way you want. For instance, I’ve tried searching for well-known apps like Uber and Google Maps in the Wear OS Play Store, only to be foiled by the interface. Typing on a small screen is never fun, and depending on what processor your Wear OS watch has, the whole thing can be tediously slow. It’s not horrible if you’re only downloading one or two apps. However, if you’re setting up a new smartwatch, it’s much easier to jump off from apps you already use on your phone that also work on your watch. While the Apps on Your Phone option will still exist, apps using the legacy embedding method won’t appear and you won’t be able to search for it in the Play Store for Wear OS—even if you know the app exists. There’s no way for users to know which of their apps use the legacy method so forcing Wear OS users—especially those who have been loyal to the platform for a long time—to figure out which ones are missing and then sideload apps they might need is stupid. Forcing new Wear OS users to do this is setting people up to hate the platform or underutilize one of the more robust third-party smartwatch app stores.
Besides the inconvenience, the other problem here is that if you buy a new phone and re-pair your existing Wear OS watch, transferring legacy apps via the Apps on Your Phone option will also go poof in the night. If the apps you rely on haven’t updated to the new way of doing things—and let’s be real, some developers haven’t been itching to prioritize Wear OS apps—you could be fighting an uphill battle. In at least one instance, a diabetic user took to the Wear OS subreddit to note that after upgrading to a Pixel 5, they could no longer use the companion app for their Dexcom G6 glucose monitor. The app was on their phone, but now there was no way to install it on their watch after re-pairing required a factory update. There are workarounds, sure, but the average person does not have the time for this nonsense.
This particular example is not great. Dexcom definitely deserves some heat for leaving Wear OS users in a lurch. After all, Google did email developers this change was coming and the onus is on them to keep their apps updated. However, it’s also on Google to invest in this platform to make it worth their while.
Google leads the way here. If you’re an app developer, what does it look like when Google prioritizes a YouTube Music app for the Apple Watch over its own platform? Are you supposed to feel incentivized to roll out new versions when Wear OS barely gets any updates? How about the fact that Google’s been aware the “Hey Google” trigger keyword for Assistant on Wear OS has been broken for months?
One of the biggest reasons for an Android user to opt for Wear OS over Samsung’s Tizen (though soon you may not have that option) is a more robust app store, Google Assistant, and Google Pay. Two out of three of these reasons now come with asterisks. Users shouldn’t have to rely on workarounds or even factory reset their Wear OS watches when they upgrade to a new phone. Google had the option here to figure out another way, to educate users and developers of what was coming.
For as much as Wear OS is the butt of the joke in the smartwatch world, we’d all be better off it thrived. But after months of stories like this, does Google even want that?
Update, 04/16/2021, 12:40 pm: Clarified that the Apps on Your Phone will still be an option, but that legacy embedded apps will not be searchable in the Play Store on Wear OS. Also clarified that apps may still be sideloaded.