Were you considering buying a smartwatch for your Android phone? Hold off until the fall. Google and Samsung have announced a partnership to redesign Google’s Wear OS for watches, and Samsung’s future Galaxy watches will run on this new software. Also, Fitbit is making a Wear OS app and will have its own watch too. The news broke at this year’s Google I/O developer conference on Tuesday.
We don’t have all the details on what the new UI will look like yet, but based on some renders Google has provided, it looks like some navigation changes are coming. First, a double-tap of a physical button on the watch case will let you switch between your current and previous apps, like a Spotify dashboard and a Strava workout session.
Google is also expanding its existing Tiles feature, which lets you swipe horizontally through a selection of widgets, to third-party apps. It was previously limited to first-party functions like Weather, Fit, and Heart Rate. Google said you’ll be able to customize the carousel of Tiles to make your favorites easier to reach. Hopefully, we’ll see more support from developers since the Tiles alpha was opened up in March. A horizontal carousel of widgets would make Wear OS feel much more similar to Tizen, at least on the surface.
Google also said it learned things from Samsung like how to optimize battery efficiency and run certain processes in the background for a better user experience. In addition to improved performance like apps starting 30 percent faster and having smoother animations and transitions, the two companies also worked on things like the chipsets and platform-level enhancements. This should improve battery life, though don’t expect to see longer runtimes just yet. The energy efficiencies are more to enable useful processes without draining too much juice. Things like constant heart rate monitoring or sleep tracking, for example, were possible on previous versions of Wear OS but would sap the battery too much to be really useful.
The new combined platform would be more open, according to the director of product management for Wear OS Bjorn Kilburn, and Google would be providing a new reference UI for watchmakers. This means companies like Fossil and Montblanc can tweak the software more deeply than before, which could result in smartwatches from different OEMs being more distinct than before.
One area where Wear OS fell short of Tizen and Apple’s watchOS before was health and fitness tracking. Though Google Fit tracked things like your steps progress and heart health points (gained from cardio activity), Wear OS didn’t offer a very well-integrated exercise-tracking system. Google also got input from both partners on how to make use of sensors like accelerometers and heart rate scanners for a comprehensive health-tracking system. At I/O, the company launched a Health Services API alpha that would let developers get familiar with the new features available on the latest Wear OS.
In addition, Fitbit is building an app for the new Wear that will bring in its tools like workout-tracking, health and activity monitoring throughout the day, and on-screen celebrations. It’s not yet clear if Fitbit’s capable sleep-tracking function will be coming to Wear OS, but if it does, it’d give Google’s platform an edge over Apple. Since Fitbit uses your heart rate to tell what sleep stage you’re in throughout the night, it offers more insight than watchOS, which doesn’t interpret your cardio data that way yet.
Some other changes include upcoming refreshes of Google’s own apps like Pay, Maps and YouTube Music, and the Assistant. Support for offline music playback (via YouTube Music and Spotify) is coming and Maps is also getting turn-by-turn navigation on the wrist soon. Most of these, like the Fitbit app, YouTube Music, and Spotify updates are coming later this year, while the Maps redesign is expected later this month or early next. Similarly, Google Pay support on watches is expanding to 26 new countries later this month or early June, bringing the total number of countries to 37. The Pay redesign is coming later this year, though, while an Assistant revamp is set for early 2022.
To make it easier for developers to create apps for the platform, Google is also offering Kotlin support optimized for Wear OS as of this week. Also beginning this week, developers will have access to new APIs for health services and ongoing activity to enable more background processes, making their apps more useful. Will the Google and Samsung team up be the boost the industry has waited years for? Will the new Wear OS finally give Android users a smartwatch that rivals Apple? Honestly, it’s too early to tell.