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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Pixel Watch Has Landed. What Does That Mean for Wear OS?

After years of hints that Google was working on its own smartwatch, the first-ever Pixel Watch has finally arrived. Powering it is the platform Google debuted way back in 2014: Wear OS. First called Android Wear, the smartwatch operating system has lived through periods of high activity and of silence; things got so quiet for a time that it felt as though Wear was on Google’s chopping block

Last year, Google renewed everyone's faith when it showed off a new version called Wear OS 3, which the company codeveloped with Fitbit (which it owns) and Samsung (which sells a lot of smartwatches). Only a handful of smartwatches are running this new version so far, including the Pixel Watch and Samsung's Galaxy Watch5, but the platform is going through many changes and it's hard to keep track of the details. I sat down (virtually) with Björn Kilburn, Google's director of product management for Wear OS, to set the record straight about where Wear is headed.

What's the Official Name?

Google's Android Wear smartwatch operating system was renamed Wear OS by Google in 2018. Lately, Google has been using a myriad of names: Wear, Wear OS, and Wear OS by Google. So which is it? Officially, it's “Wear OS by Google,” but Google says the short form “Wear OS” is also correct. 

New watches are running the latest version of the software, called Wear OS 3, and Google has retroactively used the term Wear OS 2 to describe previous-generation smartwatches.

How Committed Is Google to Wear OS?

Google's support for its smartwatch platform has been touch-and-go; Wear OS hasn't enjoyed the cadence of updates nor the attention that Apple gives to WatchOS and the Apple Watch. Google also isn't shy about shuttering its apps and services if they don't prove popular (RIP Stadia). Things are looking up for Wear OS lately though, and while it's too early to tell whether Google will follow up its first Pixel Watch with a successor next year, Kilburn assures me that Wear OS is important to Google.

“We are absolutely committed to the space and, hopefully, the evidence is there,” Kilburn says. “If you look at the number of apps that have been refreshed in the past year and a half, then the Pixel team building the first-party watch, and our collaboration with Samsung—which is super positive—I think those are all strong indicators that there's a lot of commitment beyond just the Wear team.”

How Often Will Wear OS Be Updated?

Google says you can expect a new version of Wear OS every year, just as phone owners can expect a new version of Android every year. At least, that's the hope. 

“Our goal is, from a platform perspective, for us to release a new version of Wear generally every year in a similar fashion to mobile, partly because we need to support mobile," Kilburn says. “If new functionalities added in Android are critical for watches and hearables, then we've got to find a way to get it into the watch.” That said, there will still be quarterly Wear updates to bring “new experiences” throughout the year. 

However, Kilburn notes that, unlike with Wear OS 2 smartwatches, watch manufacturers are responsible for over-the-air updates in Wear OS 3. You'll need to start checking a manufacturer's software update policy just like you would with an Android phone. For example, the new Google Pixel Watch will get three years of software updates, and the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 gets four years of updates. It's worth pointing out that Apple supported the Apple Watch Series 3 for four years. 

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This does open Wear OS to fragmentation—a massive problem with Android phones—where billions of older devices are not able to access the latest version of the operating system, causing potential security risks

Will Pixel Watch Features Come to Wear OS Watches?

Quite a few exclusive features debut on Google's Pixel phones, but then some of those features make their way to the larger Android ecosystem the following year. The Pixel Watch will get fall detection in 2023 (Samsung's Wear OS watch also has it), for example, but Kilburn didn't confirm whether it will eventually come to all Wear OS watches. He says the team is “always open” to folding features into the OS if it makes sense. 

“It’s a case-by-case kind of situation but, generally, we would seek to make anything that we see is really intrinsic to the wearable a part of the platform with time because, if all users needed and expected it, it would make sense, right?” 

What's the Deal With Google Fit and Fitbit?

The Pixel Watch's health and fitness features are managed by Fitbit and the Fitbit Wear OS app. (Google acquired Fitbit in 2019.) However, the Fitbit watch app is currently not available on the Wear OS Play Store, and it's unclear whether that's because Fitbit's health-tracking features are meant to be an exclusive offering on select devices. Meanwhile, Google has another fitness app—Google Fit—that's not preloaded on the Pixel Watch, but is available to download from the Play Store on any Wear OS smartwatch. Kilburn says whether Fitbit shows up on the Wear Play Store is up to the Pixel and Fitbit team, but he highlighted just how much time and effort it took to get the health-tracking experience right on the Pixel Watch.

“You need a tremendous amount of expertise to come together in physiological knowledge, really strong sensor quality, and deep integration in the product, as well as the ability to use Google's strengths in machine learning,” he says. “I can’t speak to future plans or speculate on how Fit and Fitbit coexist going forward, but we’ve learned a lot about just how deeply integrated some of these things need to be in order to get the level of quality that’s needed to really respect the user at the end of the day and build a great consumer experience.”

His answer suggests that Fitbit is, at least initially, focused on providing the most optimized experience, which you can achieve only with deep collaboration with whomever’s making the device’s hardware. As for Google Fit, it’s an option available for third-party Wear OS watchmakers to utilize (though many have their own fitness and health apps). It used to be preloaded on Wear OS watches, but with version 3 that’s no longer the case. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google discontinue the app in the future, but that’s pure speculation.

Is the Wear OS App Going Away?

Wear OS 2 smartwatches rely on the Wear OS by Google app for setup and management, but in Wear OS 3, every smartwatch gets its own dedicated Android app. The Montblanc Summit 3, for example, requires the Montblanc Summit app, and the Pixel Watch has its own mobile app too. That doesn't mean the Wear OS app is going away, especially since it's necessary for older watches. Google says it's still required for Local Edition Wear OS 3 smartwatches in China.

Generally, this means that any manufacturer that wants to make a Wear OS smartwatch has to put in more work than ever before. They'll need to make their own Android app and manage software updates. Wear OS 2 smartwatches all had the same interface, but Wear OS 3 allows for watch-makers to customize a watch's user interface. The barebones look is available for anyone to use (similar to what's on the Pixel Watch), but manufacturers will need to invest in resources to tune the interface to their own liking to distinguish their device. 

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“There's a lot of work to do, and maybe the complexity is going up in order to meet the expectations of users,” Kilburn says. “The system UI, the core system navigation, and stuff like that—I think you know, largely you should be able to take and adapt. It’s up to the manufacturer how much they want to modify that.”

Is Samsung Still Codeveloping Wear OS With Google?

The original Wear OS 3 update was developed by Samsung, Google, and Fitbit. It's why Samsung joined the Wear OS platform with the Galaxy Watch4 and ditched its homegrown Tizen OS. Asked whether Samsung is still helping with the operating system's development, Kilburn says, “I can't comment on any future development from that perspective. It's a critical relationship to the work that we're doing every day.”

Are More Apps Coming to the Wear Play Store?

Wear OS has historically had a paltry suite of apps in its app store—at least when compared to the Apple Watch. Things have improved lately with Google refreshing several first-party apps for the platform, like the revamped Google Assistant app, and there are even new ones, like the Google Home app. “It’s hard to convince third-party app developers to invest if your first-party app isn’t doing its job,” Kilburn says. “We recognize that we need to lead by example.”

One of the ways Google is encouraging developers to make Wear OS apps is by streamlining the development process—Kilburn says the team has invested a lot in making it feel familiar with the process of building an Android app, though he says there's still more work to be done. 

When Will Wear OS 2 Watches Get Wear OS 3?

Ever since Google announced Wear OS 3, it has said that select Wear OS 2 smartwatches—specifically those powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 4100 and 4100+ chipsets—will get the new version, though the update will factory reset the watch. It was expected to arrive by now, but fret not. There's no firm timeline but Google says it's still expected to arrive later this year. 

Does Wear OS Still Support iPhones?

Wear OS smartwatches have long been compatible with iPhones, with some limited features, but Samsung's Galaxy Watch5 and Google's Pixel Watch have zero support for iOS. This is not a Wear OS 3 feature, but a decision made by the device manufacturers. Montblanc's Summit 3 works with iOS, for example, and Kilburn says compatibility is based on what the device maker wants.

What's the Next Big Challenge for Wear?

Kilburn says the number one problem his team is working on is better battery life. “Our biggest contribution, I think, is to continue to invest in power,” he says. “This is a journey, and it’s a very difficult problem because of the size. In fact, you want to make watches even smaller to be inclusive of everyone’s wrists. That means there’s even more of a challenge for us.”

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