Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

Where Google is going right and wrong with its smartwatch platform
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There's no doubt Wear OS is living in the shadow of the Apple Watch right now – while manufacturers are usually coy about exact smartwatch sales, analysts suggest the Apple smartwatch has a substantially bigger market share than Google's platform.

The Apple Watch has also been given consistent and useful refreshes in the three years since its launch, across both its hardware and its software, leaving Wear OS looking sluggish and fragmented by comparison.

Essential reading: The best smartwatches to buy right now

It's true that you've got a much broader choice when it comes to Wear OS watches – but can any of them match the Apple Watch for features, functionality, or style? Here we're going to look at the state of Wear OS as 2018 draws to a close, and get the opinions of current Wear OS users and developers on what the future might hold.

How Wear OS got to where it is

Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

You might remember Wear OS began life as Android Wear in 2014, with the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch leading the charge. The first-generation Moto 360 (with the distinctive 'flat tyre' display) followed later that same year, and was upgraded in 2015. More gestures, support for standalone Wi-Fi access, iOS pairing capabilities, and interactive watch faces also arrived in 2015.

Read this: Best Wear apps to download first

The next big software and hardware update arrived in February 2017. Android Wear 2.0 came revamped with Google's Material Design UI, and genuinely useful features like standalone watch apps, handwriting recognition, smarter alerts and cellular connectivity arrived. The LG Watch Sport and LG Watch Style were launched at the same time.

That major refresh didn't give the wearable OS the impetus Google might have been hoping for. Since then we've seen a Wear OS rebrand in March 2018, but not much in the way of new software features or new hardware devices. Aside from a series of Fossil Group designer refreshes and the TicWatch Pro, it's been a quiet year for Wear OS watches.

Big names such as Huawei and Samsung have switched or stuck with their own smartwatch operating systems, and the oft-rumoured Google Pixel Watch has yet to materialise. This has partly been due to hardware constraints, with Wear OS watches stuck with the Qualcomm 2100 chipset for two years – an age in processor terms.

Now that the Qualcomm 3100 is finally on the scene, built from the ground up to power the next generation of smartwatches, we might start to see some serious improvements in Wear OS smartwatches besides a resolution bump here and an extra sensor there. As it stands in 2018 though, how does Wear OS stack up against the competition?

The user view

Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

German Android developer Juhani Lehtimäki has been a Wear OS user since 2014 when he got an LG G Watch at that year's Google I/O. Since then he's shifted between Wear OS, the Samsung Gear watches, and the Apple Watch.

"Wear 1 was focused on being an extension of your phone – to me that was the perfect device," Juhani says. "Wear 2 feels like a panic reaction from Google responding to all the tech bloggers yelling 'but what can it do?'

"Wear 2 took a step towards being a smartphone with a tiny screen and standalone apps instead of extensions to your phone apps, keyboard, Play Store etc. These do not belong to a watch."

Iwan van Ee is an IT solutions specialist from the Netherlands who has been using smartwatches for four years but has only been on Wear OS for the last few months (having also switched from iOS to Android) – and his experience is much more positive.

Google's wearable OS is "intuitive and fast" on the Huawei Watch 2 Classic, Iwan says. "Google Assistant is a great help for getting answers to questions, starting apps, navigating to work or other places, setting timers, making appointments, tracking walking and running etc."

We also spoke with Aaron Gumbs, an IT consultant in the UK delivering software on Android, iOS and Windows. For him Wear OS – which he's been using for a year – is currently full of good ideas let down by a less-than-polished user interface.

"Wear OS has the right range of features from Google and its app partners, but the delivery of these features is often hampered by user interface design by all parties," says Aaron. "I have seen a massive improvement from Google and others over the past few months though."

The developer view

Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

To get a better feel for the current strengths and weaknesses of Wear OS against the competition, we spoke with a couple of developers: Kris, who makes standalone Wear OS podcast player Wear Casts, and Jason, the developer behind Wear OS reading app Wear Reader.

Essential reading: Using a Wear smartwatch with an iPhone

The Qualcomm 3100 is a step in the right direction

Kris told us it feels like Wear OS is "improving" while still remaining hampered by a lack of a good wearable chip. The Qualcomm 3100 is "a step in the right direction" but still lagging behind Apple's efforts, he says. "It's almost as if Qualcomm is saying it's not financially feasible to build a new chip for Wear OS. Google has been steadily improving the software but only within the last year."

"Wear OS is struggling right now," says Jason, pointing out that only around 7% of smartwatches sold run Wear OS. "There is much fragmentation between devices. Screens can be round or square. Some devices have speakers, where others do not. Hardware accuracy from sensors such as the accelerometer also varies greatly between devices. These things combined make it hard for developers to write compelling apps."

There are strengths to Wear OS, however: our developers listed smart notifications, iOS support, out-of-the-box integration with Google services, the range of developer tools available, and the ease with which Android apps can be extended to Wear OS, as some of the main benefits of Google-powered smartwatches.

On the downside, Kris and Jason both mentioned a lack of support for indie developers, patchy investment from Google, and substandard health and fitness tracking features as negatives for Wear OS – with blame attached to the hardware as well as the software. "Every Wear OS watch has a glaring drawback, whether [it's] the size, battery life, lack of waterproofing, no NFC… most watches have to be charged overnight," says Kris.

Wear OS vs the competition

Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

So if Wear OS is rather hit and miss, how is the Apple Watch attracting much more market share? Part of it is down to that iOS install base of more than two billion devices of course, but it's also true that the Apple Watch Series 4 has features that many Wear OS devices can't match – like heart rate sensors and an ECG that can detect atrial fibrillation.

Essential reading: Falling back in love with Wear OS

The choice of Wear OS wearables on the market, and the almost endless range of watch faces, means consumers have many more shapes and sizes to pick from – but at the moment it doesn't seem to be enough to attract buyers in serious numbers. Perhaps there's just too much choice for Wear OS to really make an impact.

As we've mentioned, Apple has focused on health and fitness, giving the Apple Watch the edge in this department: with the Series 4 ushering new features like an ECG reader and automatic fall detection, plus more detailed tracking for running and for workouts, it's piling on the features at a much faster rate than Wear OS.

Let's not forget alternatives like those offered by Samsung and Fitbit either: lagging behind Wear OS in terms of apps and watch faces, but with a strong set of features and recognisable brand names that are going to appeal to Samsung phone owners and Fitbit enthusiasts alike.

"My dream smartwatch would be Apple Watch responsiveness, Samsung Gear hardware and Wear 1 notifications," says Juhani.

It's fair to say that the biggest tech manufacturers don't seem interested in building Wear OS smartwatches right now, with the slack getting picked up by more traditional watchmakers like Tag Heuer or smaller companies – and for one reason and another that means Wear OS is struggling to find its niche between cheaper fitness trackers, traditional watches, and the continually refreshed Apple Watch.

Looking forward for Wear OS

Fixing Wear OS: How Google could fight back against the Apple Watch

Both our developers were adamant: Wear OS needs a flagship wearable to compete with the Apple Watch. "When people buy an Apple watch, they buy the Apple Watch," says Jason. "When people buy an Wear OS device, they buy… what? The release of a Google Pixel Watch could change that as it would give users one device to focus on."

"The platform really needs a flagship watch," agrees Kris. "No Wear OS watch comes close to the Apple or even Samsung Galaxy watches. Google is clear it wants its partners to focus on the hardware while they focus on the software but neither is doing a good job. Maybe the problem is fashion companies aren't good at building tech hardware."

While we'd say there are in fact some very good Wear OS smartwatches on the market, we can see the point – while earlier models had their flaws, the Apple Watch Series 4 really brings hardware and software together impressively well. It's particularly adept at health and fitness tracking, something Wear OS is still struggling to excel at.

The Wear OS users we spoke to had different ideas about how to push Wear OS forward. Aaron Gumbs wants to see more user customisation options and less of a reliance on Google's apps and services, while Iwan van Ee would like tighter and more useful integrations with the apps already on his phone.

For Juhani Lehtimäki though, less is more. He points to the Google Chromecast and the Google Home smart speaker as devices that are brilliant in their simplicity.

"Google needs to bring Wear back to being extension of our phones," says Juhani. "The amount of standalone apps available for a watch doesn’t matter… how well it extends my Google Fit, Android notification system and others is what matters. Take out the Play Store, take out the keyboard support, and focus on being helpful."

If there's one area where Wear OS can perhaps get a foothold, it's with the ever-improving Google Assistant. Google's AI helper is widely recognised as having the edge over Siri, and is also well suited to smartwatches, with its hands-free voice control. Maybe by working hard to make Google Assistant even more useful on the wrist, Google can start to claw back some market share from Apple.

The other silver lining to the success of the Apple Watch for Google is that it could buoy up the smartwatch market as a whole. If iPhone users start to get used to wearing a watch on their wrist, they might eventually come around to the idea that Wear OS can do an even better job – but that's going to need more investment from Google, its hardware partners, and third-party developers alike.

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David is a freelance tech writer who has been writing about technology, gadgets and gizmos for more than 20 years.

You can find his work on The Guardian, Wired, Gizmodo, PopSci, TechRadar, T3 and many other major publications on the web and in print.

He spends all day, (almost) every day testing out, explaining, and reviewing smartphones, laptops, smart home kit, wearables, and other essential devices.

From iOS to Wear OS, from Samsung to Sony, he's got an intimate knowledge of almost everything going on in the world of technology right now. When it comes to wearables, there aren't many smartwatches, fitness trackers and VR headsets that he hasn't tried and tested – which means he has a wealth of experience to draw on when it comes to talking about something new or the market in general.

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