suunto 7 wear os logo on wrist

Wear OS is struggling — there’s just no way around it. Where the Apple Watch grew to 40% of the market at the end of 2020, according to Counterpoint Research, Google-powered smartwatches were mostly lumped into the shrinking “Others” category below brands like Fitbit, Samsung, and Huawei. Add in sluggish updates and it’s easy to worry that Wear OS will join Buzz and Wave in the Google Graveyard.

However, Google just turned those expectations on their head with its new collaborations between its recent acquisition Fitbit and mobile giant Samsung. Simply speaking, Google has admitted that Wear OS needs help and is tapping two of the most experienced wearable brands on the planet to help that recovery. They’re both promising unions that could make Wear OS a truly viable competitor in the smartwatch world.

Fitbit and Samsung will help Google catch up on features

Google IO 2021 Sameer Samat talks wear OS

Ask a Wear OS user what they don’t like and you’ll probably hear some familiar refrains. Battery life and performance are frequently acceptable, but mediocre; the built-in fitness features are lackluster; there aren’t many apps; the interface has largely been stagnant. It’s promising, then, that Google is tapping Fitbit and Samsung for help.

Related: The best Wear OS apps

Fitbit still has a knack for fitness features on watches like the Sense and yet still is capable of days-long battery life. Meanwhile, Samsung has clarified it will help deliver a brand new, unified experience with better performance and “world-class” health and fitness. That’s saying a lot when Samsung is often thought to have the best smartwatch interface beyond Apple, not to mention longer battery life and a reputation for integrated health features. In other words, Fitbit and Samsung are strong precisely where their new partner is weakest.

And frankly, it’s not clear that Google could have found its way out of its current rut without advice from either Fitbit or Samsung. The company has a long history of half-hearted support for Android on any device that isn’t a phone — just listen to tablet users who’ve been waiting years for more than token efforts to improve the interface and app selection. Both new partners may help Google just by breaking bad habits that have run Wear OS into the ground.

Market clout matters

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 display
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

There’s also a basic commercial reality at work: Fitbit and Samsung are bigger, more recognizable names in the wearable world than Google, and in some ways electronics as a whole. Fitbit is almost synonymous with activity trackers, while Samsung dominates in categories ranging from phones to TVs. Even if Fitbit and Samsung didn’t change their product lines, their involvement would give Wear OS credibility it didn’t have even with support from traditional watch brands like Fossil and TAG Heuer.

But they are changing their product lines, and that’s where the partnerships might represent a decisive coup. Fitbit and Samsung have both committed to releasing Wear OS watches in the future, and that should give Google a much-needed hardware boost. Samsung won’t necessarily kill Tizen-based watches as a result, but they may not be as prominent as they once were. And it’s safe to say that Fitbit OS watches won’t be a high priority now that Google is involved (and it could instead make its way to the Google Graveyard in the future).

Effectively, Google is trying to slide the market share needle by involving some of its erstwhile competitors. There’s no certainty the Fitbit or Samsung watches will lead to a renaissance, but Google might only need a modest success to improve Wear OS’ stature, diminish some of its rivals and convince the public that its technology is worth a second look.

No guarantees of success

fitbit sense review apps exercise strava eda scan
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

Of course, this is all presuming the team-up works as Google hopes. Fitbit may be almost a household name, but there’s no doubt that it isn’t as influential as it once was given its declining sales and a surge of affordable fitness trackers from Xiaomi and others. Samsung is still a powerhouse, but it also has its own smartwatch platform and no direct ties to Google. If the Wear OS watch flounders, Samsung might not hesitate to stick to Tizen instead of holding out for Google.

And of course, it’s all in the execution. Fitbit and Samsung may fare better in the smartwatch world than Google has so far, but they’re not flawless. Fitbit’s recent health sensors have been glitchy, for instance, and Samsung hasn’t had much luck fostering a large Galaxy Watch app ecosystem. If either fails to bring its best, Google might not be much better off.

It’s the attempt that matters, though. Google hasn’t shown this kind of commitment to smartwatches since the early Android Wear days — it’s treating wearable tech as a major project rather than a sideshow. Even if Google, Fitbit and Samsung fail, they’ll have raised hope among fans who otherwise faced a bleak future.