Has Google Botched the Pixel Watch?

Clock ticking for the rumoured smartwatch

It’s been almost a year since Google burst back onto the smartwatch scene at its I/O event in 2021. At the time, its acquisition of Fitbit and new partnership with Samsung looked set to propel the company along an exciting new path, combining the best of the three firms on the Wear OS 3 platform. Rumours have rumbled about a potential Pixel watch built on the technology ever since. However, the latest whispers are that this could still be months away from fruition. Disappointing? Yes. Surprising? Not so much.

When news emerged about Wear OS 3, it was met with a lot of excitement for how the platform might shake up the industry, but the absence of any real development since then — bar the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Watch4 — has left a smartwatch-shaped elephant in the room. The acquisition of Fitbit hasn’t resulted in any Fitbit features reaching the unified platform, and Wear OS 3 still hasn’t rolled out to other Android smartwatches.

In fact, from the outside looking in, everything about the evolution of Wear OS 3 has been haphazard. Take the naming convention for example; at Google I/O in May 2021, the operating system received a wholesale update and integration with Samsung’s Tizen software. During the launch, Wear OS 2 was radically rebranded to just Wear, but before long Google gave up on this approach and settled on Wear OS 3. I find this bizarre oscillating to be emblematic of a disjointed approach to the roll-out of Wear OS 3 in general.

The announcement brought more questions than answers. What features would be taken from Tizen and Wear OS? Would Fitbit devices run the new platform? Which devices would receive the update? And perhaps most importantly, who’s really in charge of the whole thing?

Answers to some of these questions came in August 2021, when Wear OS 3 debuted on Samsung’s Galaxy Watch4 series (see Instant Insight: Samsung Unpacks Galaxy Z Fold3, Z Flip3, Watch4 and Buds2). My colleagues and I were impressed with the upgrade compared with Wear OS 2, and it was notable that the engine inside felt almost entirely driven by Tizen. This was a relief for people who were worried that Samsung’s strong software design may be suffocated by the partnership.

However, nearly a year on, the question remains, what will happen with the Fitbit brand that was acquired by Google? We still don’t know if this iconic brand will fade into the background or if the reputation it has built in hardware, software and its community of users will be used to enrich the new Wear OS experience. James Park, Fitbit CEO, has maintained that Fitbit will launch a Wear OS 3 flagship device sometime in 2022, but we’ve not seen a Fitbit smartwatch launch since the Sense in September 2020 and there’s no sign of change here.

I can’t help feeling that the losers in all this are smartwatch-makers Fossil and Mobvoi, which have released smartwatches such as the Fossil Gen 6 and TicWatch E3 and Pro series with the promise of an imminent update to Wear OS 3. But with no clear timescale of when this will land, the watches remain in limbo. It seems increasingly likely that they’ll be left without an update for some time, which could frustrate customers.

Beyond questions about Wear OS 3, rumours have swirled about a potential Pixel watch mimicking Google’s smartphone family, which is designed to show “the best of Android”. However, many in the industry fear that the launch of this device may be pushed back until later in the year (see this article). It’s not clear why, but it could be related to a limited supply of chipsets for wearable devices, as several other players have recently flagged problems here.

Whatever the reason, it looks like a long wait before any hardware will arrive, and this delay may reinforce the industry’s view of Google’s weakness in hardware and challenges to successfully implement marketing and launch strategies for its devices. This would be less of a problem if there weren’t a total of one device running Google’s vaunted new operating system — but right now this is the reality, and it means that Wear OS 3 looks rather underused.

What’s more, a launch date later in 2022 for a Google-branded device could clash with a product from Apple or Samsung. Even though it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this was a purposeful choice by Google, it’s hard to see how being pitted against the market leaders could benefit a challenger device. Of course, that’s not to say the company isn’t doing its best in a competitive market facing significant pressure. But the longer this goes on, the more it feels like Google is missing opportunities to revitalize the wearables market.