The rebranding exercise last week from Google on Android Wear was an important one, if nothing more than superficial. Now known as Wear OS by Google, the flavor of Android designed to run on watches, the name change reflects many things that have been changing with the Android naming convention over the past few months.
But the problems for Wear OS are far deeper than a simple name change can fix. Sure, Google can address the iPhone user market who, they report, is one out of every three Android Wear user today. The fact is, a premium Wear OS watch experience needs to happen and it needs to come from Google. Just as they have done with phones and Chromebooks, a Google “Pixel Watch” would unleash all the potential of Wear OS to the masses. But there are big obstacles in the way that have to be addressed. If there is a company that can sort it out, it is Google. The question is if they want to do it.
Let me address the premium Wear OS device element first. Yes, I know there are Wear based watches from Modavo, Louis Vuitton, and Michael Kors out there and these, without a doubt, have a premium price. But under the gold and encrusted bezels remains the core problem: The OS itself.
In its current state, Wear OS is simply too clunky, to unintuitive and to slow. Even on these high end watches, it doesn’t feel high end. There are still to many steps you need to take in order to check something as simple as your step count in some cases. Compounding this is that manufactures have, just as they have with Android itself, added bloatware that in many cases often duplicates services or apps available from Google.
The resolution for this is a rethink of how Wear as a platform works. Too often it feels like what Microsoft was trying to do with Pocket PCs in the late 90s-early 2000s. They were trying to force Windows onto a PDA and it just didn’t work because people needed something different than Windows in their hand. They needed a truly helpful and productive device. Wear today is in that same boat. People really do want smartwatches but the attempt to make it Android on your wrist and function in the paradigm of a smartphone is, frankly, a failure. For their part, Apple got this early on. WatchOS for the Apple Watch functions completely different than iOS although the two are tied together nicely.
Personally I’m not a fan of the UI of Apple Watch and I’m not suggesting Google copy it. Rather, do a rethink along these lines of having a completely unique and useful user experience. Google’s task is to make a watch OS platform that is intuitive, responsive and doesn’t feel like a squished down version of Android. It needs to have the customizations it has today, but be far more interactive and AI driven. Google Assistant, which came with Android Wear 2.0, is a solid first step.
Redesigning a user experience is only part of the equation. The other part is the SoC (System on Chip) running the watch itself. The MediaTek MT2601 was released in 2015, a lifetime ago. The new Snapdragon Wear 2100 SoC was introduce last year and is running on a lot of watches today but there is no planned successor for it right now. This is a gap that Google themselves can fill.
Google could produce a SoC for Wear OS that is optimized to run AI and ML out-of-the-box. That would give a far more robust and useful experience to users straight away. But by designing their own SoC, Google could properly optimize it to run the platform that would allow for a highly interactive user experience by voice and touch.
All of this leads me back to the headline of this article. The need for a Pixel Watch. If Google were to go through a redesign effort of Wear OS and design a true wearable SoC chipset, they could really deliver on the promise that has yet been unrealized: A true extension of your phone with the ability to get small tasks done on your wrist without ever having to take your phone out of your pocket. Yes you can do some of this today but heaven help you if you run into a connectivity or sync problem. It’s just not reliable because of both the software and the hardware we have today.
Further, a Pixel Watch could be the showcase device in the wearable market for the company. Much like the Pixel phones have done and the Pixelbook for Chromebooks, Google would have a device the designed and developed to point to with their manufacturing partners. “This is what we want you to create” would go the story and it would give watch manufactures an incentive to go and make something great.
But make no mistake. If Google were to release a Pixel Watch based on Android Wear 2.x as it is today, it would be a failure. It would, much like the renaming process we went through last week, be superficial. Google has to decide if Wear OS is important and if it is, commit the time, energy and resources to make it a great platform. That is the OS itself as well as the SoC. Then, and only then, does a Pixel Watch make sense.