Wear OS was a footnote at I/O

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Does it speak volumes that the one announcement Google had around Wear OS was made a week before its annual I/O developer conference? Or that announcement was about bringing a feature that has existed on a rival smartwatch for a while now – no means a groundbreaking addition to a smartwatch platform that still lags behind the competition?

When Sundar Pichai took to the stage for Google’s keynote he talked smartphones, smart assistants and privacy. The only thing wearable related on stage was the Fossil Sport he was wearing.

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It’s a question we continually ask, but are smartwatches still a priority for Google? In our eyes it still struggles to provide a fitting riposte to what others (not just Apple) currently offer those that want useful smarts on their wrist. It’s now been five years since the OS formerly known as Android Wear was first unveiled. While the hardware made the necessary move away from those initial techy, prototype smartphone companions to watches that looked much closer to the ‘dumb’ but classic designs that inspired them, the software that pulls it altogether hasn’t had the same transformation.

Google has spent the last year-and-a-bit trying to do things it should have been doing from the start. Making Wear OS more user friendly, making it work better with non-Android phones and giving us the type of health and fitness features that Apple, Garmin and Fitbit have proven are features people want on their smartwatches. In 2019 though, we are still waiting to be blown away by Wear OS.

So why was there so little talk of smartwatches at I/O, the place where Google’s developers assemble to help make its platforms – platforms like Wear OS – better? Our man stateside Hugh has been out at I/O this week, and while there was a Wear OS demo area where people could get a closer look at the new Tiles feature, that was it. The execs he spoke to said they’re ramping up all things Wear OS internally, hinting at bigger stuff later this year, but it was barely a footnote of the show.

Talk of a hero smartwatch from Google will never go away. It feels like we’ve been speaking about a Pixel Watch for an eternity. We thought we’d finally see it in 2018, but it never turned up, yet the speculation won’t go away. And while a Pixel Watch or whatever Google decides to call it (if it launches one) feels like something Google should do and needs to do, it’s the software that underpins it all that really needs improve if Google wants to compete with watchOS, Tizen, Fitbit OS and Garmin’s maturing smartwatch platform.

How does it do that? By having a clearer sense of what works and doesn’t work on smartwatches. It’s been five years now, Google should understand what is and what isn’t sticking, taking lessons from partners that are getting Wear OS into the hands (and wrists) of more people. Those hardware partners are taking into their own hands to make Google’s operating system a better fit, but it’s high time Google proved that it’s ready to make this work.

Maybe at next year’s Google I/O Sundar Pichai will take to the stage wearing a Google-built smartwatch in hardware and software, and we will be talking more about the big things that are happening to Wear OS. My gut feeling is that we might be in the same place as we find ourselves today. I hope I’m proved wrong.



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