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Google and Samsung team up to fix Wear OS

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Wear OS has been in need of a fresh coat of paint for… well, always. Every time Google tried to fix Wear OS, it seems like it just made things worse. Wear OS has been languishing for the last few years, but today Google has announced a major shift. It has partnered with Samsung on a new wearable platform that combines “the best of Wear OS and Tizen.” It’s still called Wear OS—at least for now.

Google’s wearable rethink comes in three parts. There’s the new Wear platform, of course.  Google promised the new platform would feature apps that launch 30% faster and longer battery life. There was no specific metric for battery life, but Google and Samsung cited taking better advantage of low-power cores in the system-on-a-chip.

Google is working on a suite of watch-optimized first-party apps to run on the new platform, which is long overdue. For instance, Google says there will be turn-by-turn in Maps, and (finally) support for offline music in YouTube Music. Spotify will add this feature in a future update. Meanwhile, Google Pay will get a full redesign for watches that includes support for tap-and-pay in 26 countries, up from 11 in the current version. There’s a new Tiles API as well, and Google claims this will make it easier for developers to spin up Tiles for their apps. Google used the Calm app (above) as an example of new Tiles, but Adidas, Sleep Cycle, Hole 19, and more are also readying Tiles. There’s also a new quick-switch shortcut—just double-press the hardware button to go back to your last app.

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Lastly, there’s the addition of Fitbit’s premium health and fitness service, which Google inherited when it acquired the company last year. Some of Fitbit’s features will come to the new wearable platform, but the specifics are very limited right now. Fitbit founder James Park used encouragement notifications as an example. Interestingly, it sounds like Google will use Samsung’s health and fitness tech at the core of its new API rather than Fitbit’s. Fitbit isn’t being phased out, though. Park confirmed Fitbit will build premium smartwatches in the future running Wear.

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Google was cagey about the technical side of this partnership—it even shied away from calling the updated software “Wear” whenever possible. However, the Android-based Wear OS will continue being the base of the new platform. According to Samsung, it brought its expertise optimizing performance and batching sensor data to the project. In the developer keynote, we heard about how that sensor technology will lead to better exercise tracking, a feature that has been sorely lacking in Wear OS. The Tizen watch face designer will be ported directly to Wear, too.

Samsung confirms that its next Galaxy Watch will run the revamped Wear, and that means Google services like Maps and the Play Store will be included. Does this mean Bixby will finally get the boot? We can only hope. One thing you won’t lose is the rotating bezel, which will appear on at least some future Galaxy Watch models.

Even if Bixby goes by the wayside, this is a big bonus for Samsung’s wearables, which until now have relied on the terrible Tizen app ecosystem. I know, we often talk about how little developers seem to care about Android wearables. For all its failures, Wear OS has still maintained a better selection of apps and watch faces thanks to its integration with the Play Store. For people using Tizen watches, Samsung promises it will support those devices for at least three more years. Developers can keep making apps for Tizen, not that there were many people doing that even before today.

And lest you should think this is a Google-Samsung exclusive, Google made a point to say that all its wearable partners will be able to use the new Wear. We should know more when we get closer to the new platform’s launch this fall.

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