March 4, 2024

Apple and Samsung won the smartwatch war and we are all worse off

We think of smartwatches as a distinct category of device, with their own software and hardware design concerns. For one thing, we use them instead of carrying them in our pockets like a phone. First of all, they must also be small enough to fit on a wrist. But can they really be significantly different when there are really only three smartwatches to choose from and they are all made by companies that also make smartphones?

This is a question we will have to answer in 2024. Fossil, once one of the leading manufacturers of Wear OS smartwatches, has announced that it will exit the wearable business, leaving Samsung and Apple as the two remaining suppliers of smart watches available globally, with Google coming in a distant third. The remaining companies serve more specialized interests or focus on selling in Asia. It’s a dramatic reduction that, in addition to limiting options for customers looking for a watch to pair with their Android phone, could affect the quality of wearables everywhere. What a smartwatch is has contracted and will probably not expand again.

There when there was no one else

Fossil smartwatches seemed “normal” in every way.

Photography by Alejandro Medellín

Fossil may not be a smartwatch brand (they are very popular for analog watches) like an Apple or Galaxy Watch, but they are everywhere if you look closely, selling in department stores and online. Fossil smartwatches were the first my mom remembers seeing as she transitioned from using a chunky Garmin watch to track runs to something more general. Fossil’s relationship with the fashion world as a maker of jewelry, watches and accessories allowed it access to stores in a way that other companies had to shop.

Not all smartwatch manufacturers play with the same hands.

It helps that it has also been a consistent Wear OS partner until now, launching its first Wear OS watch (then called Android Wear) in 2015 and arguably defining the look of early smartwatches in the same way as colorful plastic and e-ink. from Pebble. The displays did so in 2013. Fossil was unique at the time for making smartwatches that actually looked like regular watches, with round faces, bezels, crowns, and metal accents. When Samsung used thick, square screens, that stood out at the time. Fossil also held firm on Google’s wearable operating system even as the company seemed to have lost interest in its own platform, surviving underpowered Qualcomm chips with almost no new features for years.

The company’s decision to discontinue its line of smartwatches appears to be purely economic. In a statement to The edge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Jeff Boyer, said, “Fossil Group is redirecting resources to support our core strength and core segments of our business that continue to provide us with strong growth opportunities.” Turns out, those are the things Fossil made before smartwatches, like jewelry and leather goods. I can’t really blame them for stopping if people don’t buy them. The competition is tough and not all smartwatch manufacturers play on a level playing field.

Samsung and Google

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is more clunky and device-like than the company’s current smartwatches.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Modern Wear OS (technically Wear OS 4) is defined by the deepening relationship between Google and Samsung. The new version of Wear OS, starting with Wear OS 3, was built on the back of the Tizen platform that launched with the original Galaxy Gear. It has design elements and features that are natural extensions of Android, but it’s very much Samsung software with Google services, and it looks even closer with the One UI layer it has on current Galaxy watches.

Samsung has been in the smartwatch game for a while. That original Galaxy Gear came out the same year as the Pebble, and the company continued to iterate on its original features, opting to remove the camera (yes, the first Galaxy Gear had a built-in camera) and shifting toward round displays. and bezel controls on current Galaxy watches.

Google’s entry into smartwatch hardware is relatively new. The Pixel Watch 2 launched last year and didn’t really change much of what already worked on the first-generation model, in favor of improving performance and battery life. Like Google’s Pixel phones, it’s not as popular as its competitors, but the Pixel Watch is interesting as a representation of Google’s perspective on smartwatches. Even if you perceive Google to exist as some sort of meaningful alternative to Samsung, the company’s collaboration on the platform itself betrays the fact that Google probably doesn’t care how many smartwatches it sells. As long as Samsung continues to use Wear OS, Android, and Google’s own services, it will be happy.

Everything is an Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is an extension of your iPhone and a complement to it.

Photography by Raymond Wong

What makes the Apple Watch unique, besides being a “good” smartwatch, is how much of an accessory it is for the iPhone. We’ve written about the new level of independence Apple has given to watches like the Apple Watch Ultra, but anecdotally, the people I know who own them don’t use them to run ultramarathons or spend weekends away from their phones. They just like having a bigger, brighter screen and longer battery life.

The Apple Watch is successful not only because it’s good, but because it only works with your iPhone. It’s an extension of all the things you love about your phone and a few extra sensors. Apple takes advantage of that connection to offer unique features. Your smartwatch can help you find your iPhone and other Apple devices; It can do everything your phone does, including making calls, sending messages, controlling your home, and even downloading and running apps.

Samsung treats the Galaxy Watch the same way. Technically, it can work with any Android device, but to access all of the Galaxy Watch’s health features, you have to use Samsung apps, and Samsung apps are installed by default on Galaxy phones like the Galaxy S24. Google does not limit any capabilities of the Pixel Watch to Pixel phone owners, but it does ensure that certain Pixel-exclusive software features, such as call transcriptions, can be used on the Pixel Watch. A tight connection between a smartphone and a smartwatch made by the same company allows for smoother integration and performance that simply won’t be possible on a device like the Fossil Gen 6 Smartwatch. How could it be more attractive?

Fewer options help no one

I can’t definitively say that the way Apple created smartwatches and smartphones is what drove Fossil out of business. But it seems like it probably made it harder to keep up. If there were more options, it might not matter if a company decided to limit itself to what it does best, but other Android smartwatches don’t have the same reach.

Sure, there’s Mobvoi’s Ticwatch. Garmin still makes smartwatches that can connect to Android phones, but its best products are for athletes and don’t use Wear OS. That leaves watches made by companies like Huawei and Oppo, which never leave Asia in the first place. Maybe OnePlus will finally unveil its sequel to the original OnePlus Watch, but I’m not holding my breath just yet.

With nothing else to turn to, that leaves Apple, Google, and Samsung in charge of how smartwatches look and work for most people, which isn’t exactly a vibrant ecosystem, especially when smartwatches from those companies They exist primarily to make their smartphone counterparts. harder to give up. Fossil may not have been a giant, but he had a perspective. It was about making watches for people who didn’t want to wear a device attached to their wrist. Now it’s gone, and it’s hard to imagine any kind of “nonpartisan” smartwatch maker having a chance to take its place.

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