Rounding out the rest of the improvements are support for the Bluetooth 5 standard and an upgraded 4G LTE modem for faster cellular data connectivity. Qualcomm says the faster LTE modem should improve services like maps, music streaming, and voice assistants.
Does It Matter?
But both Qualcomm and Google’s Wear OS platform play a small role in the broader smartwatch ecosystem.
In the first quarter of 2020, just 4.2 percent of all smartwatches sold were running Google’s Wear OS platform, according to Vincent Thielke, an analyst at Canalys. Comparing that to Apple’s 36.3 percent market share in the same period, it’s easy to see just how far back Google’s operating system sits. And of the 66 million smartwatches sold in 2019, Thielke estimates only 5.6 million used Qualcomm chips, with Wear OS making up the bulk at 56 percent. (The rest are mostly smartwatches from Chinese manufacturers that use different processors.)
“Wear OS has not been growing year over year,” Thielke says. “It didn’t grow in Q1 2019, it also didn’t grow in Q1 2020. I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s kind of just fallen behind other smartwatch platforms. Other platforms have really been prioritizing health features—specifically regarding heart rate—and from what we’ve seen with the Wear OS platform, we just haven’t seen as strong of a push. There are limited health features.”
Apple introduced an electrocardiogram in its Series 4 Apple Watch in 2018, which was cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration and other governments around the world. Samsung more recently saw the South Korean government approve similar functionality in its watches, which run the company’s own Tizen operating system.
Samsung, currently third in the smartwatch market as of the first quarter, offers sleep tracking in its watches. Apple is also set to introduce the same feature later this year in its next version of WatchOS. Google has no native sleep-tracking functionality in Wear OS yet, though you can use a third-party app. Also, Wear OS doesn’t include support for electrocardiograms. The overall health and fitness offerings in Wear OS are also more limited than what you can find in smartwatches and fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit and Garmin.
Something else holding Wear OS back, according to Thielke, is the dearth of apps on the platform. Big platforms like Apple’s WatchOS and Samsung’s Tizen, with their large and active user bases, are more attractive than Wear OS as targets for app developers, Thielke says.
That’s where Google’s Fitbit acquisition comes in. The deal is still pending regulatory approval, but if it succeeds, it will deliver a much larger user base for Google to learn from. It will also give the company access to Fitbit’s fitness-tracking prowess, which includes advanced heart- and sleep-tracking features. None of this will happen anytime soon though, as integrating Fitbit and Wear OS will take a lot of developmental time.
Thielke also thinks that Google marrying Wear OS with Fitbit might detract from the Fitbit brand, due to Google’s poor track record with its own wearable platform, not to mention the public’s broader concerns about Google’s data-collection practices. He believes the best move is for Google to keep the two brands separate as it works on a next-generation version of Wear OS that will pull in the strengths of both.
But even if these changes come to fruition, it’s unlikely Google will make much headway in the market. Looking at Canalys’ data from the first quarter of 2020, Thielke says Wear OS and Fitbit combined only amounted to 1.5 million smartwatches sold. That’s still far behind Apple, Huawei, and Samsung.