It’s no secret that Google’s efforts in the wearables market have struggled at times, but with Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) transitioning into its third major iteration, there’s renewed interest from Google and smartwatch makers alike to ensure that this time the platform succeeds.
Much like Google’s relationship with Android – before it started producing Nexus, and later, Pixel-branded smartphones – the company builds and distributes Wear OS to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), who then load it onto their hardware to sell (i.e. Google doesn’t make smartwatches itself).
Despite a myriad of prominent brands producing smartwatches running on Android Wear/Wear OS (such as Huawei, LG, Motorola, Sony and many more), whether due to weak performance or poor app support, the platform itself failed to capture the attention of buyers who instead continue to flock to Apple’s, Samsung’s and Garmin’s wearables (based on Q2, 2021 market share figures from Strategy Analytics).
Right now, however, pieces appear to be falling into place in such a way that Wear OS 3 has perhaps the best shot yet at actually succeeding where previous iterations of the platform failed.
Samsung serves as the obvious spearhead in this situation, with the newly-launched Galaxy Watch 4 Series being the first set of devices to utilise the newly-updated Wear OS platform.
The one stumbling block here – in terms of how well the move to Wear OS 3’s has been executed – is that the Watch 4 line runs ‘Wear OS powered by Samsung’ – a specialised fork of Wear OS 3 that more closely acts and behaves likes Samsung’s existing Tizen-powered smartwatch experience, right down to the lack of Google Assistant support (at launch, at least).
Nonetheless, Wear OS 3 is the byproduct of a collaboration between Google and Samsung, so the fact that it’s so competent on the Watch 4 bodes well for the vanilla Wear OS 3 experience set to arrive on other watches down the line.
Samsung’s sway in the smartwatch market is also an undeniable boon for the wearable platform’s success, with the South Korean company’s timepieces occupying the number two wearables spot globally for the past few years (behind Apple) and suggesting an army of brand-loyal fans.
Then there’s Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, which completed at the start of 2021. The company known for its band-style fitness trackers (most recently, the Charge 5) promised “premium smartwatches based on Wear” during the unveiling of Wear OS 3 at Google I/O 2021.
Despite losing market share to the Apple Watch since release, like Samsung, it also commands a faithful user base of some 31 million active users (those using its products at least once a week, by Fitbit’s definition), all of whom could potentially make the jump to a Fitbit-branded Wear OS 3 smartwatch, if one were to materialise.
For all of the stress and strain the pandemic has exerted on the global economy over the past 18 months or so, the smartwatch market has actually shown significant growth in that time; with health features serving as a prime driving force behind the product category’s success (making the likes of Fitbit a great fit for Wear OS 3).
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Wear OS 3’s launch isn’t finding manufacturers or a customer base to adopt it – as there’s clear potential for both – but rather holding people’s attention.
With the exception of the Galaxy Watch 4 line (and its unique flavour of Wear OS), the only other products we currently know of set to run Wear OS 3 are existing offerings from the likes of Mobvoi’s TicWatch line and Fossil’s new Gen 6 watch family, all of which currently run on Wear OS 2.
The kicker is that, in Google’s own words, the jump to Wear OS 3 for such devices won’t be made available until “mid to second half of 2022” at the earliest. It’s for this reason that the arrival of the long-rumoured Pixel Watch isn’t now expected until sometime later into 2022, rather than alongside this year’s Pixel 6 smartphones.
There’s every chance that brand new Wear OS 3-powered watches will arrive sooner than these existing wearables with their promised H2 2022 update, but that level of uncertainty detracts from the excitement and potential that the arrival of Wear OS 3 brings.
Ultimately, Google has the clearest picture of Wear OS 3’s timeline and how it uses that information will make or break the impact the wearable platform’s arrival has on the smartwatch market going forward.
If it succeeds, Wear OS 3 will likely have replaced Tizen as Samsung’s wearable OS of choice in the long-term, Fitbit fans will be able to enjoy a raft of new features and functionality beyond what the company’s existing trackers offer and OEMs like Mobvoi and Fossil will continue to push out a broad variety of smartwatches, safe in the knowledge that the software they run can compete with the market’s best in a way previous iterations fell down.
On the flip side, if Wear OS 3 fails to gain traction over the next year or so, it’s in the hands of a company that’s no stranger to killing off products that don’t pull their weight. In many ways it’s something of a miracle that Wear OS has lasted as long as it has, considering its lukewarm reception up until this point. Either way, we don’t have (too) long to find out its fate.