Wear OS finally got its chance to thrive

Google’s Wear OS platform has always been the laughingstock of the wearable community, but the tides have finally changed. After years of neglect, Wear OS finally got a fair shot.

There’s been a lot to get excited about in the Wear OS world over the past year or so. The Snapdragon Wear 4100 series has boosted the latest range of Fossil watches to be a very powerful performer, and it has launched the Galaxy Watch 4 in Wear OS 3. In addition to that, Google has finally made the Pixel Watch!

But today it saw the biggest boost to the Wear OS market yet — Qualcomm is finally making a good chip. That’s one of two things that really give Wear OS a chance to grow and thrive.

Qualcomm trades with minimum to maximum effort

The impact of today’s reveal of the Snapdragon W5 + Gen 1 chip cannot be understated.

Qualcomm has been the leading name in chips for Android smartwatches ever since the platform was known as Android Wear, but the company has always delivered on the bare minimum.

The 2016 Snapdragon Wear 2100 has some improvements to smartwatches, but it’s built on older technology. The chip used a 28nm process, a far cry from the 14nm process used by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 from the same year. At the time, that was pretty much good. Android Wear wasn’t particularly demanding, and the smartwatch market was still in its early days.

Two years later, Qualcomm doubled down on that old technology with the Snapdragon Wear 3100, which was virtually the same chip but with a co-processor to offload some tasks. The stress was at that point. The 2018 Snapdragon 845 was using a 10nm process, and Google’s platform was demanding more performance. The 28nm chip was actively blocking Wear OS, and even doubling the amount of RAM was only so far improving performance.

Fossil Sport was the first Snapdragon Wear 3100 . watch

With Qualcomm’s style set, that meant waiting two years to get the next chip in place. That timing didn’t work out at all, given that the smartwatch market actually started growing in 2019, and COVID hit in 2020, only driving up the demand for wearables, but leaving Wear OS behind. Qualcomm eventually released the Snapdragon Wear 4100 series later in 2020 with a much-improved 12nm process, but it’s too late to take advantage of it. Mobvoi has been the only customer of the 4100 series for about a full year, and Fossil’s bids on the 4100+ have been average at best. Google has moved on to bigger things, working on the Wear OS 3 upgrade that was announced in 2021 and debuted later in the premium Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 series.

Now, Qualcomm has finally turned things around. The Snapdragon W5 and W5+ are built on a more efficient 4nm process with big promises for performance and battery gains — and frankly, we believe it. The Galaxy Watch 4’s 5nm chip beats what Qualcomm was offering before, so it should be a Snapdragon chip that beats Samsung in at least the same area.

The important thing here is that this chip is not for one device only. Samsung still hasn’t made the Exynos W920 in the Galaxy Watch 4 series available to anyone else, but the Snapdragon W5 series will be available to basically everyone. Mobvoi and Oppo are already there, and it’s hard to imagine that Fossil won’t jump at the opportunity for the next several months or so.

Chips have always been the primary problem with Wear OS. Google’s platform in and of itself was fairly good, but it faltered due to poor performance which hampered the apps as well. But this has always been a “chicken and egg” situation. Qualcomm had no incentive to make better chips for smartwatches that people didn’t buy, and people didn’t want to buy smartwatches hampered by these problems that came from the chip.

Finally, Qualcomm has stepped up to solve the problem, and in combination with Wear OS 3, it’s a perfect storm to give the platform the breathing room it’s always needed.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4
The Galaxy Watch 4 was a sign of things to come

Google Wear OS gives Android a model

But beyond the slide that has always been the primary problem, Google is also working on making Wear OS a more flexible platform.

During its creation as Android Wear, Google said explicitly that its OEM partners wouldn’t be able to change the platform as they do with traditional Android phones. An Android Wear smartwatch will be software-level identical whether it’s from Motorola, Samsung, Sony, LG, or anyone else – side note: Fabulousthere were a lot of partners back in the day.

This is a rule that Google has slowly eroded over time. Some partners may include custom apps, while others modify system colors. Mobvoi has started including its app drawer on recent models, and over the past couple of years Google has opened up big customizations to some overseas partners, like Oppo.

But Wear OS 3 is the real turning point.

Samsung was our first sign of what was to come. The Galaxy Watch 4 is running an unrecognizable version of Wear OS from the flavor of Google. It doesn’t use the Wear OS app, and everything works differently. The only items making their way are the Play Store and some major system items and apps – do they look familiar?

It’s very clear that Wear OS adopts the Android model, with Google providing a core operating system that its partners have the authority to modify to suit their needs. Some will make heavy customizations, like Samsung. Others, like Montblanc, seem more satisfied with Google’s designs.

Wear OS 3 Montblanc
Montblanc has its own setup app, and so does everyone else

But outside of the watch itself, this also allows smartwatch partners to better communicate with their customers. One app per smartwatch will no longer be used. Samsung has its own. Montblanc has its own. Fossil works on its own, others will work too; Even Google has a “Pixel Watch” app up and running. While this creates a headache for people like me who operate multiple smartwatches, it’s great news for the average customer.

Smartwatch makers can create an app that fully encompasses the experience they want to build, from pairing to management to fitness.

Will you succeed?

But the real question here boils down to where we go from here – the stars align with Wear OS until you finally see some meaningful growth and success. But has much damage already been done? Samsung is clearly happy and finding success in its switch to Google’s platform, but can Mobvoi, Fossil and other brands really recover from years of being left to fend for themselves?

Really, we’ll have to wait and see. But one thing is clear – there has never been a better time to search for a smartwatch that matches your Android phone.

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