The Pixel Watch isn’t great, but it could still save Wear OS

Last week, the Pixel Watch launched. As Google’s first premium smartwatch, it fills up the void that has existed for eight long-drawn years. During this time, Android users have felt the absence of a powerful smartwatch that offers an unadulterated Android experience, competing against the Apple Watch. Google arrives late to the party, at a time when brands already imagine successors to smartphones, and Apple and Samsung have strongholds in the market.

The Pixel Watch stands against the odds, and the first impressions lend no mercy. Things could have been much different had Google set a timely foot in the segment. So, a few basic questions crop up: Is it too late for the Pixel Watch to get the success that Google claims it to be worthy of? Can Google salvage that? Is this the end of Wear OS?

google pixel watch with a recycled loop strap.
Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

These aren’t exactly headscratchers, and the Pixel Watch fails to enchant us at first look. But it brings changes to the software experience that may be exciting despite its lax and lackluster hardware. The real puzzle that remains is, will it stand the test of time?

Lack of lucrative options under Wear OS

Apple has pwned every other smartwatch brand since the release of the first Apple Watch in 2015. Barely any other company dares to come close; Samsung and Huawei, which precede it, have been selling less than one-third of the number of units — despite their smartwatches’ lower prices and Apple Watch’s exclusive support for the iPhone. As per recent estimates, the Apple Watch dominates more than 35% of the smartwatch market — an authority that Google (briefly) enjoyed before Apple forayed into the segment.

tag heuer connected calibre e4 wear os menu.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Before the launch of the Apple Watch, Wear OS (called Android Wear back in the day) was one of the leading smartwatch operating systems. It engaged manufacturers such as Fossil, Huawei, ZTE, Ticwatch, Motorola, and LG, and could easily expand its market share by introducing its own smartwatch.

However, despite its lead in the segment, Google was quickly dethroned and uprooted by the Apple Watch, which sold a smashing 10 million units within the first year of its availability. The sales have only grown — even despite the global pandemic disrupting market trends in all other segments of consumer electronics.

lg watch sport.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Google’s share, in contrast, has only dwindled, with manufacturers leaving its side and renouncing Wear OS for their own proprietary interfaces. Before Samsung switched its software base to Wear OS in 2021, Wear OS smartwatches were being smothered at the hands of brands with unique identities that rely on custom software. While Google has enjoyed continued patronage from luxury brands such as Tag Heuer, such companies haven’t actively flooded the market with too many options or units — their primary objective remains to appear progressive.

Without Google distancing itself from the ecosystem for so many years, the landscape could have looked strikingly distinct.

Google has been distant, disinterested

In March 2014, Google was seated fairly comfortably in the smartphone market when it set out to explore another avenue to capture. Android Wear was introduced following co-founder Larry Page’s vision to make the mighty search engine accessible through every interactive device. Smartwatches seemed to be definitive extensions of smartphones, which, by then, had started to transgress the boundaries of easy usage.

In the beginning, however, Google averted launching its own hardware — and merely licensed software to other brands instead. The plan seemed to work well for the first year, and by 2015, Android Wear had already occupied a quarter of the smartwatch market, boosting Google’s confidence in making its own hardware. There were some notable Android-based smartwatches in the market by then, including the glorious and revered Moto 360.

motorola moto 360.
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

However, the Apple Watch shaped the landscape quite differently in the coming years. The lack of a Google-backed competitor was strongly felt, which persuaded Google to make its own. In 2016, preparations for Google’s Pixel lineup were already underway when Rick Osterloh was anointed Google’s new VP of hardware. Although the company planned to launch a smartwatch — likely to be dubbed Google Watch — alongside the first-gen Pixel smartphone in 2016, those plans changed. The hardware division, headed by Osterloh, quashed those plans just weeks before the launch, Business Insider learned.

The purported Google Watch was already designed, finalized, filmed for launch, and ready for production when the new hardware boss decided to drop them from the company’s first hardware launch. Per former Google employees interviewed by Business Insider, Osterloh didn’t find these LG-made watches fitting into the cohesive and intentional premium ecosystem comprising the Pixel smartphone, Google Home smart speaker, Chromecast, and mesh Wi-Fi routers.

lg watch sport review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

In the years to come, as the Pixel lineup matured, Google kept fans itching for a worthy Apple Watch contender as the tech giant continued to reel under losses from the hardware division and lower-than-anticipated acceptance for its Pixel lineup. Not just phones, Google couldn’t do much to salvage its premium tablets and laptops. Google’s wan confidence in its own Wear OS platform continued to drive other companies farther away.

Although hardware had never been Google’s prowess, the company even failed to foster a sustainable ecosystem of software for manufacturing partners as well as developers. Business Insider also takes accounts of developers and how the only officially operated forum for Wear OS was deprecated along with Google Plus’s demise.

In 2022, the Wear OS ecosystem continues to be haunted by Google’s lack of tending.

Wear OS’s continued software struggles

Android operates seven out of every 10 existing smartphones. Unlike its supremacy in the phone market, the smartwatch counterpart barely commands a similar kind of allure. Less than 20% of the total smartwatch users opt for Wear OS smartwatches — and the numbers were much more dismal before Samsung joined the club.

main menu on the montblanc summit 3.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Notably, Samsung only uses Wear OS as the base for its custom-designed software interface. Meanwhile, the stock Wear OS interface hasn’t changed significantly since its rebranding. Other than the customizable watch faces, most of the Wear OS interface feels sluggish and dull. Laced with light-colored text over a predominantly black or gray background with occasional splashes of color, the interface fails to excite. In contrast, Apple’s watchOS feels doused in color, despite a similar white text-black background approach.

Other than the native interface, the Apple Watch also offers an extensive library of first-party apps that will work in tandem with your iPhone. Those are some advantages of being trapped inside the malignant walled garden. Not just experientially, Wear OS smartwatches fail to appeal based on their hardware. Sadly, the Pixel Watch doesn’t differ much.

And then we have the hardware problems

The Pixel Watch features a round dial with thick bezels, a design many, including myself, have detested. The Pixel Watch only comes in a 40mm size, making it a less desirable option for people who either have big hands or prefer big watches. The choice of a circular bezel instead of a square or a rectangular one has also been contested and dismissed. Besides aesthetics, the internals aren’t exactly exciting, either.

google pixel watch with grey strap.
Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

Traditionally, smartwatch chipsets inherit technology from older mobile chips — with the manufacturing process being a key parameter to judge their age. To give you some context, the Apple Watch uses a T8301 chip since Series 6; the CPU cores on this chipset are manufactured on the same 7nm process as the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic chip.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 is a relatively more advanced Exynos W920 chip made on a 5nm process. In contrast, the Pixel Watch uses an Exynos 9110, an 11nm chip that first debuted with the Galaxy Watch Active 2 in 2019. The Pixel Watch’s four-year-old chip is also supplemented by a custom Arm Cortex-M33 co-processor, making this solution analogous to Google’s Tensor chip (also a modified Samsung Exynos chipset).

google pixel watch with two different strap styles.
Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

Apple hasn’t refreshed the internal hardware of the Apple Watch for three generations and Samsung for two. But, Hey Google, a first-generation watch using a four-year-old piece of hardware, is bound to leave us wary.

Avi Greengart, industry analyst and founder of Techsponential, writes, “To keep people from slowly bleeding over to iOS, Android badly needs a successful watch beyond Samsung’s Galaxy Watch (which is excellent, but a little too Samsung-centric for anyone not using one of that brand’s phones). The Pixel Watch does not appear to be that watch, at least not yet.”

What the Pixel Watch appears to be, instead, is a ray of hope for developers still invested in the Wear OS ecosystem.

A spark to better the app ecosystem

The Google Pixel Watch, irrespective of its dated hardware, can be the beacon leading Wear OS app development. The Pixel series is the first to get the latest Android updates and features, which is expected to hold for the Pixel Watch.

the google home app on the google pixel watch.
Google

Until now, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 5 series running on Wear OS received the latest updates and the newest features before other Wear OS smartwatches. The Pixel Watch now rightfully claims the pole position for testing new apps, features, and software, and the timely introduction of the Google Home app for Wear OS makes this dull appearance a bit exciting.

The Pixel Watch also benefits from Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, which was completed in 2021 after nearly 15 months of antitrust battles. The Watch uses Fitbit’s revered health-management algorithms to accurately detect heart rate, motion, and other activity data.

Not just that, Google can be expected to pour resources into encouraging developers to give the ecosystem a fair chance — at least for a couple of years before Google can wholeheartedly decide to give up on yet another platform. This can expedite the participation from developers and reignite OEMs’ interest in the Android-based smartwatch market.

A battle only half lost

Apple and Samsung have nearly a decade of a headstart for Google to catch up to, and this will not be an easy journey. For a first-generation smartwatch, the Pixel Watch is a tolerable but not necessarily exciting proposition. What can be exciting is the idea of seeing other manufacturers finally gravitate toward the platform and actively introduce smartwatches that learn from the Pixel Watch in the best way possible.

google pixel watch on a wrist.
Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

We may still expect the features that the Pixel Watch inherits from its Fitbit ancestry to be limited to Google’s own line of smartwatches. Still, they may set the stage for other brands to make more affordable Wear OS smartwatches without investing heavily in their own R&D.

The road ahead for Wear OS watches, especially the Pixel Watch, is paved with the carcasses of condemned and abandoned Android Wear devices. Brands will need to tread very, very carefully not to evoke the ghost of mistakes past.

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