Although I’m a dedicated Apple Watch user/wearer, I do occasionally monitor things in the land of Wear OS. You can’t ignore what’s happening elsewhere.
The fact that most Wear OS smartwatches are circular in design is fascinating to me, as this has led to a range of different user interface considerations, case shapes and band styles. I would argue that Apple strikes a better balance of visual design and function with its more square-shaped watch faces, as circular Wear OS smartwatches ultimately cut off or awkwardly format much of the written content.
My interest was piqued recently when I stumbled upon this article by Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo, which explains the recent acquisition of Fossil Group by Google, which could lead to some sort of ‘Pixel Watch’. The use of the word ‘doomed’ is a tad sensational and very familiar to Apple blog readers, however the article makes some great points. This part stood out to me, as it details the major issue with Wear OS and the way that Google operates in this space:
If Google really wants to fix Wear OS, the first thing it needs is to secure a good SoC supplier. Today, no component vendor sells a good smartwatch SoC that a company like Google can buy. Qualcomm is really the only game in town, and it doesn’t seem to care about the smartwatch market. Qualcomm has had three major “generations” of smartwatch chips: the Snapdragon 400, the Snapdragon Wear 2100, and the Snapdragon Wear 3100. Fundamentally, these three chips, released over a four-year span, are all the same. They all use Cortex A7 CPUs built on a 28nm manufacturing process, which was state-of-the-art smartphone technology back in 2013. Qualcomm hasn’t invested in building a serious smartwatch chip and instead only pays lip service to the market by repackaging the same core technology year after year. I don’t think it’s possible to build a viable, competitive smartwatch using a Qualcomm chip.
Apple’s greatest advantage in this market, like the others in which it participates, is its hardware prowess and ability to integrate its software and services simultaneously. Apple reimagined what a modern watch could be by essentially making it a computer on the wrist and prioritising the creation of an in-house S-series of chips, much like the A-series for iPhones and iPad. (Let’s see if Apple ends up extending this chip philosophy to Macs, with the oft-rumoured transition from Intel to ARM chips.)
Google and its partners made devices that look and feel like watches… but are slow to innovate or improve. Apple threw off the shackles of traditional watch design and ideals, keeping terms like ‘complications’ and ‘crown’ to make connections to the world of traditional watches for the sake of marketing and familiarity.
With the investment in silicon, Apple can deliver meaningful performance and feature improvements each and every year. Google tried to jump on the smartwatch bandwagon and probably assumed that it would have the same success and hardware proliferation as it did with Android on smartphones. Instead, the company has been left to deal with hardware and chip makers that operate on different schedules and with different values.
Again and again, we see the power of owning and designing the whole widget. I do hope that Google will have greater success with Wear OS, purely for greater competition and to keep Apple on its toes. I’m not holding my breath though.