Google: The future is with Smartwatches again

Google’s first incursion into smartwatches started relatively favorably. Then, in early 2014 — when there were rumors of an “iWatch,” but the Apple Watch didn’t yet exist — the company ventured into a software platform called Android Wear.

David Singleton, then the director of engineering at Android, finished the next 20 minutes explaining how Android Wear would function.

First, he named the smartwatch “a powerful computer small enough to wear comfortably on your body all day long” and described developers they’d have entry to “precisely the same tools we’re already familiar with on Android phones and tablets.” Next, he steered off three new devices from Motorola, LG, and Samsung and vowed many more were coming soon.

At the I/O developer summit that year, then-head of Android Sundar Pichai explained why wearables were an aspect of the future of computing. He laid out four principles for Google’s approach to this ecosystem: everything is contextually aware; the voice is a core input tool; everything should be seamless, and your phone is the center of the universe.

That was as buzzy as Google-powered smartwatches ever were. Instead, Google followed a pattern: overlooked the platform altogether, only to arrive with a few updates and a promise that the business still cared about wearables, then forget again. In 2018, Android Wear became Wear OS, and later that year, Google released Wear OS 2.0.

But even by then, few new Wear OS devices of note, few new feature updates worth caring about, and little proof that Google was invested in its smartwatch business.

Finally, in 2021, Google made another gesture toward caring with the launch of Wear OS 3 alongside Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4, which made it seem like Google was perfectly content to have Samsung’s hardware be Apple’s main competitor. Heck, it seemed happy a company wanted to make that hardware.

The only thing that has changed about Google’s smartwatch strategy is how much it seems to care about. Pichai’s ideas about context and seamlessness, the power of voice — all that is as true and as central to the plan as ever. One thing that has changed is how Google sees your phone; Google now imagines Assistant and its cloud services as the connective tissue for all your devices rather than the slab of glass in your pocket.

But for all intents and purposes, Google was essentially right about smartwatches almost a decade ago. And while Apple has proved Pichai’s theories correct, Google can’t seem to care long enough to try.

The Pixel Watch’s dual-processor setup is made with health tracking in mind, too, and borrows some ideas from Fitbit. “We’ve got the main SoC that’s running Android,” says Seang Chau, a VP on the Android team, “but then we have an MCU, similar to Fitbit, that allows us to do one-second heart rate readings, all the time.” The Apple Watch measures heart rate every five minutes on average, but Fitbits — and now the Pixel Watch — do it practically continuously. “That allows us to lean in on the health aspects because heart rate is the core of all the fitness data we’re extracting from.”

The Pixel Watch may be largely Fitbit on the inside, but it was designed to look like something very different. With a domed, round face and a large set of interchangeable bands, it’s meant to be a stylish piece of jewelry as much as a rugged exercise companion. Its 41mm diameter is substantially smaller than the Apple Watch, and the watch feels more subdued. Classy, even.

Batteries and processing limitations mean there’s only so much you can do on a smartwatch. Google did a lot of work on the Samsung Exynos 9110 chip inside the Pixel Watch — there’s no Tensor chip here, at least not yet — but physics still largely dictate what a watch is capable of. That’s why it’s essential to get fitness and health right; that’s one thing smartwatches can already do well before so much else becomes possible. But if you believe Google will be in this for the long haul, it’s clear the company sees that changing quickly.