There are lots of wearables out there today and the market is very broad and saturated at nearly every end of the spectrum. The number of headphones, earbuds, smart watches, fitness bands and smart glasses on the market can be overwhelming. What’s promising about the market is that lots of wearables have gotten considerably better, especially with size, battery life, performance and signal strength. I have thoughts for the whole wearable market, but will focus on smartwatches in this piece—an area that shows significant growth and promise. I’ve been following the smartwatch market since the original Pebble hit the market in 2013. Now we’re looking at a much larger market—the North American sector alone was worth $2 billion in Q2 2019 this year, according to Canalys’ numbers. All is not peachy everywhere though—there are some players that seriously need to up their game if they want to continue to be relevant in the wearable space.
Apple currently holds around 45% of the global market, shipping 12 million units in Q2 this year alone. The company is currently on its fifth generation of the Apple Watch, and has refined the design and interface in a way that is extremely user-friendly. It continues to add features that make the Apple Watch the default wearable for anyone with an iPhone. I do wish that Apple would make the Apple Watch more platform agnostic, but I believe that Apple is using the device as an anchor to keep people on iOS.
My personal experience in the smartwatch realm is that Apple simply nailed the experience better than anyone else. I’ve tested many smartwatches over the course of the last year and I continually find myself coming back to the Apple Watch. I believe that Apple really hit its stride with the Apple Watch Series 4, when it flattened out the design, curved the corners more and increased the resolution. I find Apple’s heart rate sensor and other added health capabilities to be more accurate than its competitors. The Apple Watch isn’t perfect—it still looks more like a nerd watch than something fashionable from Mont Blanc or Fossil. I also believe that Siri’s overall weakness compared to Google Assistant holds the Apple Watch back. With the Series 5, Apple finally added an always-on screen feature. However, the jury is still out on whether or not Apple was able to achieve this while still delivering multi-day battery life.
I think that Samsung’s Tizen OS is the best non-Apple implementation of a Smartwatch OS and my experience with it has been mostly positive. If I were to recommend a smartwatch that isn’t an Apple Watch I would recommend Samsung’s latest smartwatches. However, the problem is that they get the most functionality when paired with a Samsung phone, using the Wear app. Samsung’s watches tend to be a bit on the rugged or sporty side, which reflects well for most of the purposes that people buy smartwatches for. Importantly, Samsung watches are both functional for health purposes and practical for day-to-day use cases. I believe that Apple accomplishes this better than Samsung, but Samsung isn’t really far behind. That said, I believe that it would be better to have Google Assistant on the Samsung Galaxy Watch without having to make a workaround. I know Samsung wants to push Bixby, but I’m still not sold on it and neither are most people. Voice assistants are absolutely key to making a wearable useful in the long term and the two best platforms have the weakest voice assistants. This means they both have room for improvement.
WearOS, formerly known as Android Wear, is the default choice for Android smartphone manufacturers wanting to build a smartwatch. Fashion brands are also onboard the WearOS train and for the most part, it is the standard for Android users. Because WearOS is more smartphone agnostic, you can pair practically any Android phone with any WearOS watch. In theory at least—my last Android Wear watch, the Fossil 5th Gen took 6 or 7 attempts to pair before I could get it to work properly. I’ve also had more random reboots happen with WearOS than Samsung’s Tizen or Apple’s Watch OS. I was a user of WearOS when it was still called Android Wear and used early devices including the LG G Watch and Moto 360. I started noticed a downhill decline of WearOS in my Huawei Watch 2 Sport after an Android Wear update—suddenly my watch no longer felt responsive and snappy like it did before. Google Assistant suddenly had a delay and felt sluggish and slow—a big problem, because it was what made me so excited about smartwatches and Android Wear (now WearOS) in the first place. Having the power of Google Assistant was awesome because it enabled me to read and respond to text messages entirely by voice and see directions on my wrist while driving. It also served as a great microphone for phone calls when driving. All of these functions went away once it started feeling sluggish. After Android Wear 2.0 came out, things got a bit better, but none of the watches really felt as stable or as responsive as they used to be.
Recently, Google announced that it will acquire FitBit for $2.1 billion in order to prop up its smartwatch business, which has gotten lots of criticism from the industry for the aforementioned problems with WearOS. A lot of people blamed Qualcomm, as the sole chip supplier of Google WearOS, but that is somewhat misguided. Many of them blame Qualcomm for the slow release cadence of its chipsets. This argument is weak for a few reasons. Apple comes out with a new smartwatch chipset every year because it can and it’s what it wants to do. Qualcomm does not come out with the latest SoC every year because Qualcomm builds what its customers want and when they want it. It is in the business of selling chips, not watches. Apple sells watches that happen to contain the company’s own chips.
Getting back to smartwatches, many smartwatch manufacturers—especially the fashion brands—are much less concerned about what components are inside of the watch. To them, those are simply commodity parts that enable an experience which is centered around design, battery life and user interface. If you look at the latest generation of smartwatches, the SoC is not really a place where significant battery life improvements can be made—many of those savings have already been achieved. The display is the biggest factor in a smartwatch’s total battery life and thus, the SoC is less of a concern to many of these manufacturers. Yes, they do need an SoC that is ample enough to run the operating system and render the display, but they also want the internals to cost as little as possible.
I am a hardware guy, but I also recognize the needs of the smartwatch manufacturers. I would love to see annual chipset updates from Qualcomm and the smartwatch manufacturers, but I simply don’t think that the industry outside of Apple can make that happen—especially with the uncertainty around WearOS and Google’s lack of execution. I believe that smartwatch OEMs and Google bear the brunt of the responsibility for why WearOS watches aren’t as good as Tizen and Watch OS. Ultimately, Google deserves the biggest blame, since it’s done the least to figure out what’s wrong with the platform and fix it.
The ball is really in Google’s court. The company neglected WearOS, and now most Android users are fed up with the experience. With the acquisition of Fitbit, maybe Google will finally improve Google Fit and the health side of WearOS, but I’m not entirely sure that it will entirely fix the WearOS’s massive software problems. The company needs to start from scratch and rethink what users really want from a smartwatch OS. I think that Google truly had the right idea initially but got lost over the course of the last few years. Multiple industry forecasts project that the smartwatch industry alone will be worth over $30 billion by the next 5 years, which is a considerable market for Google to be losing out on. For now Apple and Samsung reign supreme.