Wear OS is in an awkward spot. Having recently rebranded the smartwatch OS formerly known as Android Wear, Google hopes the number of iPhone users buying top smartwatches will continue to swell – but the bedrock on which these wearables are built is starting to fossilise.
Over the last few years Google has assembled an all-star cast of fashion and technology brands to build Wear OS smartwatches, but they're all being held back by technology that feels antiquated – and is rapidly falling behind the competition. Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 system-on-chip was announced at the start of 2016 and – some software improvements aside – hasn't been refreshed since, while the Apple Watch and even Samsung's Tizen smartwatches have bounded ahead.
Essential reading: Best Wear watches to own
That will change when Qualcomm unveils its new silicon later this year, said Pankaj Kedia, Qualcomm's senior director of wearables. The new platform will be announced this autumn alongside a lead smartwatch, he revealed, and by the holidays several partners will have Wear OS smartwatches with the new chipset on the market. Sadly a lot of the specifics will remain under wraps until Qualcomm is ready for a more formal announcement, but in a discussion with Wareable, Kedia and Dennis Troper, Wear OS director of product, confirmed the new platform is coming and gave us a taste of what it will look like.
First thing to note: this is going to be a different type of upgrade than we've seen before. Truth be told, the Snapdragon 400 processor used on earlier smartwatches was just a modified phone chip. The 2100, found in almost all Wear OS watches today, was slightly more customised for the wearable experience, but even so it arrived on outdated technology. "In the 2100 we made tweaks in packaging, in sensors, in a lot of software," said Kedia. "But when we go to generation three, it's designed from the ground up for a no-compromises smartwatch experience with dedicated chips that make your watch look pretty when you're not looking at it, that bring the best fitness and watch experience, and extend battery life."
All chips will have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as standard, while fitness and sports-focused chips will have GPS
"From the ground up" is one of Silicon Valley's most loved and exhausted phrases, but this new platform does sound like the most radical leap yet in Google's wearable platform. "The next platform will be the first with purpose-built chips," said Kedia. The 2100 came built on a 28nm process, which was oddly outdated at the time, but Kedia said that we can expect something more front-line on the next platform.
Qualcomm began work on the new chips as soon as the 2100 was out the door, which means Qualcomm and Google have had a couple of years to see how the wearables market is shaking out. "Over the last two years we've been working with many of our customers and looked at what consumers like and don't like about products in the market," said Kedia. "After we launched 2100 we rethought the system architecture together."
Kedia refers to the new chips as "dedicated" to use cases, and says we can expect multiple variations. All chips will have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as standard, while fitness and sports-focused chips will have GPS. And you can expect many will also have LTE.
One of the big use cases Kedia sees as not being met with the current technology is the needs of fashion brands, which are less about intensive features like fitness, and more about just looking good. Ambient mode means these watches can still display a face when you're not looking at it, but this drains more battery and often looks… not great. "When you look at the watch today it's very good when we're interacting with it, but when you're not it's not as good," said Kedia. "You will see this new platform, this new architecture, significantly improve the look and feel of the watch whether you're interacting with it or not."
Again, we're promised smaller watches
Size is another important consideration in Google's relationship with its fashion partners. The 2100 promised us smaller smartwatches, but in the fullness of time the Wear OS choices for women have proved to be poor. Qualcomm's new chips will allow for smaller designs, said Kedia, though he wouldn't say by how much.
This platform will significantly change the Wear OS ecosystem
Qualcomm also won't say exactly how much more battery life we can expect, but Kedia says this will be a "significant" upgrade over Wear OS' current day-and-some-change. "You'll see improved battery life when interacting with the watch, but also more importantly, when you're not." If it can even eke out another day, Wear OS will have the edge on the Apple Watch – two more on top of that and it's competing with Samsung.
Finally, another perk of a new low-power architecture will be the capacity to do more with health and fitness, as smartwatches will be able to power more sensors like heart rate for longer periods of time. This is one area that Google's Dennis Troper laid out as a key focus for Wear OS, and with Apple, Garmin, Fitbit and others running a new race in deep health, it's not a moment too soon.
"People have their normal watch where they can rely on long battery life, and then they have their smartwatch where the battery life is not as good and it does not look as sleek," said Kedia. "When we want to add Fossils and the Michael Kors and LVs of the world, they don't want that. A smartwatch is first and foremost a watch, it needs to look good, it needs to be sleek, it needs to look good when I'm looking at it or when I'm not looking at it. It cannot be static when I'm not looking at it; it cannot be black and white when I'm not looking at it. So when we talk to Fossil consumers and Michael Kors consumer, they want a no-compromises smartwatch."
No compromises is a tall order, but Wear OS desperately needs a shot in the arm if it's not going to fall fatally behind. "This platform will significantly change the Wear OS ecosystem, what you expect from a smartwatch," Kedia said. "It is working, we are shipping samples to our customers. I have seen it moving, it's very exciting."