Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority
Google announced the third iteration of its Wear OS 3 smartwatch operating system at its I / O keynote in May 2021. We finally picked it up last month with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and we weren’t disappointed. It’s not perfect, but Wear OS 3 certainly gives Android users the most immersive smartwatch experience yet.
However, if you aren’t interested in what Samsung has to offer, you don’t have many other options right now.
Not only will most existing devices never get an update to Wear OS 3, we’re also seeing new watches like the Fossil Gen 6 launching with the older Wear OS 2. That made smartwatch shopping a bit complicated, of course.
Fragmentation was once a controversial issue in the Android smartphone ecosystem. Fortunately, the situation has improved a bit in recent years. Project Treble – and later Mainline – modularized the operating system. These days, the Play Store delivers a lot of minor updates and security patches.
Google did something similar for wearables with its previous soft reboot of the platform called Android Wear 2.0. Back then, a senior developer on the Wear OS team said users didn’t have to wait for a full OTA update to get incremental fixes and features. In a now lost Google Plus post, he also stated that Android Wear 2.0 would make it possible to “provide new functions via the Play Store”.
Almost four years later, however, Google did the unthinkable and at least fragmented its closed smartwatch ecosystem.
Wear OS 3 introduced the fragmentation of the Android smartwatch ecosystem.
If you’re in the market for a Wear OS smartwatch this holiday season, you should know that the Galaxy Watch 4 series is the only full-featured option.
The lucky few smartwatches that contain the Snapdragon Wear 4100 chipset from Qualcomm qualify for Wear OS 3, but will not receive the update until the “mid to second half of 2022”. Even then, Google has warned that “in some limited cases, the user experience may be affected” when users sign up to receive the update.
This problem is compounded by the fact that most brands only mention Wear OS on product pages, skipping any mention of the exact version. Of course, one would then assume that they have equivalent software and app support.
However, app support is fast becoming one of the key differences between Wear OS 2 and 3 watches.
App support on Wear OS is a mess
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority
Shortly after the Galaxy Watch 4 was released, Google announced that the YouTube Music app would launch exclusively on Wear OS 3.
This was a shock, especially since Google Play Music went under in September 2020. Existing subscribers with Wear OS 2 watches were unable to access their libraries or playlists over the past year. That won’t change in the future either – unless they reach for a shiny new Wear OS 3 device.
What’s worse, the YouTube Music app for Wear OS 3 doesn’t even stream music. This means that it has fewer features than the former Play Music app.
Another insult to the injury is the fact that YouTube Music’s direct competitor Spotify recently also added the ability to download songs on Wear OS for offline listening. The only difference? Spotify brings the feature to both Wear OS 2 and 3.
As a side note, Samsung’s Tizen platform – long berated for its lackluster support for third-party apps – offered a Spotify app with the ability to download songs a few years ago. What’s more, the functionality is even available on the Gear S3, a watch from 2016.
Continue reading: The best Wear OS apps for your watch
YouTube Music isn’t the only example. Certain feature updates for Google Maps will not be available for Wear OS 2 either. Needless to say, Google is partially giving up support for its own watch platform isn’t a good sign for the future. We’re already witnessing an exodus of third-party app developers from Wear OS 2.
Google is doing very little to keep Wear OS 2 alive.
Strava was the first notable app to end the development of Wear OS 2 and instead focus solely on the next generation. The Telegram app also disappeared shortly afterwards, although its developers have not committed to a Wear OS 3 app.
Does Google choose favorites?
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority
The dwindling app support wouldn’t be so bad if the vast majority of Wear OS devices got an update at some point. But that doesn’t happen.
Even some 2021 watches like the Casio GSW-H1000 are not eligible, let alone watches from 2019 or 2020 like the Suunto 7th today. You would expect full support to continue for at least a couple of years.
Continue reading: All Wear OS 3.0 watches confirmed so far
Of course, it’s not Google’s fault that these devices don’t meet the performance standards required for Wear OS 3. For its part, Google claims that a lot has changed between the two OS releases, including some brand new APIs. And of course, the Tizen underpinnings of Wear OS 3 from Samsung could probably make the overarching development a challenge as well.
But if Google doesn’t keep app support for Wear OS 2, which is already not working very well, older watches will be out of date much sooner than expected. And given Wear OS’s already small market share, one could argue that the search giant desperately needs its user base to stay loyal.
The whole situation smells of misunderstanding and disregard from the existing Wear OS users. Perhaps as part of a closed-door deal as part of the OS development partnership with Google, Samsung is now enjoying a one-year early mover advantage in the Wear OS 3 ecosystem. And OEMs who have shipped Wear OS devices for half a decade seem just as helpless about the update schedule as their customers.
Samsung now enjoys a one-year early mover benefit with Wear OS 3.
When Android authority Fossil asked for a comment on whether their latest Gen 6 smartwatch would work with iOS after the Wear OS 3 update.
It seems like Wear OS 3 is still a work in progress, although Google would have us believe it.
Bitten once, shy twice: how many reboots are too many?
As mentioned earlier, this isn’t the first time Google has attempted a soft restart of Wear OS. In 2017, almost all existing devices were eligible for the Android Wear 2.0 update. However, the rollout still took anywhere from several months to a year, especially on some unfortunate devices. You’d think Google learned its lesson then, but that clearly doesn’t seem to be the case.
Similar to the smartphone industry, Apple is Google’s biggest competitor in the smartwatch sector. And you can probably guess which company has a better track record of software updates. The 2017 Apple Watch Series 3 receives this year’s WatchOS 8.
Why would anyone trust Google to keep Wear OS 3 watches updated for years to come? After all, we see that the same pattern plays out again when YouTube Music is published in a half-baked state and the Google Assistant is noticeably missing at startup.
Continue reading: Apple Watch Buyer’s Guide
Will Google now improve the pace of Wear OS development, contrary to the neglect we’ve seen in recent years? And if another major overhaul to the Wear operating system landed in a few years’ time, would existing users be expected to upgrade their hardware yet again?
Google has done a lot about Wear OS 3 being a “unified platform”. But if that entity only extends to Samsung, it could very well burn bridges with everyone else.
So what should you do when looking for a portable device?
Well, if Wear OS is important to you, the Galaxy Watch 4, unsurprisingly, is your best option. Otherwise, the aforementioned Fossil Gen 6 or Ticwatch Pro 3 are your only worthwhile options – provided you’re patient and willing to take on any early adopter problems.