Google I/O is less than a month away, and our thoughts are starting to turn to what we'll see at Mountain View's big get-together. For me, I just want one thing: a new chip from Qualcomm.
Wait – don't go! Look, I know chip chat sounds about as exciting as a root canal, but this is important, so stick with me. Google can do a lot more to improve Wear OS as a piece of software, but its biggest issue is the hardware running beneath the screen, and things aren't going to dramatically improve until that changes. There's just one problem: Qualcomm holds all the power, and it doesn't seem to be doing much about it.
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Ron Amadeo did a good summary of the problem over on Ars Technica, so I'll try not to repeat too much of that here, but more than two months since that piece was published silence from Qualcomm has been even more deafening. Just a few weeks ago, Google shrewdly rebranded Android Wear to Wear OS to attract more iPhone users, yet Baselworld was notably thin on new Google watches. Are manufacturers holding back for new hardware?
Google told me it has big plans to improve its smartwatches this year, but I won't feel optimistic about the future of Wear OS until it's no longer running on such outdated technology. The two-year-old Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip is still powering new Android Wear – sorry, Wear OS – watches in 2018, which is absurd when you look at how Apple and Samsung are pushing ahead with their own processor tech. Apple has iterated twice since the launch of the Snapdragon Wear 2100; Qualcomm has become a crutch for Google's wearable program.
Qualcomm has become a crutch for Google's wearable program
How, exactly? Not that it's the only inhibitor, but battery life is an obvious sticking point. We've seen Wear partners try to remedy this with their own answers: the new Skagen Falster, one of the best looking Wear watches that money can buy, employs minimalist design in the software to supposedly eke out more battery. In our review it had no discernible effect. Google's partners are up against a wall here.
Give us what we want
A sort-of counter argument I've heard to this problem is that people don't upgrade their smartwatches each year like they do their phones, so having cutting-edge tech isn't as important. I think that mentality may shift more and more; that's an argument for another time. Fine, a lot of people don't want to refresh their smartwatch every 12 months, but when the time comes for them to do so, they shouldn't be settling for something prehistoric.
And no, Qualcomm isn't the only company making chips for wearables right now – Mobvoi's Ticwatches use a MediaTek chip, Intel has the Atom chip in Tag Heuer's smartwatches – but it's the only one making them at the right price. If it could produce enough, Samsung could presumably provide its Exynos chips for Wear OS, but I'm not sure it has any ambitions to do so.
Last year Qualcomm teased that it was working on a next-gen wearable platform, but that was in October, and it's all been very quiet since. At I/O, Google is hosting a session called 'What's new in Wear OS by Google?' and hopefully its opening keynote, traditionally held for the headline news, will expand on what Qualcomm teased six months ago.
"Qualcomm is committed to playing a long-term crucial role in bringing high-performance wearables to new audiences across many segments," a Qualcomm spokesperson told me over email when I asked the company what its plans are. "Our roadmap has exciting new products planned over the next year that will bring greater innovation to the category and deliver new levels of performance, especially with regards to power consumption. We'll be able to share those details soon."
The dream scenario is that it uses Google I/O as a platform to announce a new chip and a launchpad for the next wave of Wear OS watches (a new 'hero' watch from Google would be the icing on the cake). And I want something that really can be described as "cutting edge", which even the 2100 wasn't two years ago. While the Snapdragon Wear 2100 SoC runs a 28nm process, Qualcomm is already playing with 10nm technology that could make smartwatches much more power efficient.
There's another answer to the problem if Qualcomm keeps dragging its feet, which is for Google to go and makes its own wearable SoCs. The company has been dabbling more and more in chip design, and the Pixel 2 has a custom image chip of its own, so there's reason to wager this will eventually happen with its wearables. However, I'd expect any custom silicone will hit its smartphones before it reaches its wearables, so this dream may be a little further off.
With that in mind, I hope that when Google I/O rolls around in a few weeks, Qualcomm will finally give us what we've been waiting for and reignite our optimism for Wear OS.
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