Apple and Samsung Won the Smartwatch War and We’re All Worse Off

With only Google and Samsung to turn to, the options for Android smartwatches have gotten even more dire.

Inverse/Photograph by Alejandro Medellin

We think of smartwatches as a distinct category of device, with their own software and hardware design concerns. For one, we wear them instead of carrying them in our pockets like a phone. They also have to be small enough to fit on a wrist in the first place. But can they really be meaningfully different when there are effectively only three smartwatches to choose from, and they’re all made by companies that also make smartphones?

This is a question we’ll have to answer in 2024. Fossil, once one of the major Wear OS smartwatch makers, has announced that it’s getting out of the wearables business, leaving Samsung and Apple as the two remaining smartwatch providers available globally, with Google a distant third. The remaining companies serve more niche interests or are focused on selling in Asia. It’s a dramatic reduction that, besides 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 likely won’t expand again.

There When No One Else Was

Fossil’s smartwatches looked “normal” in all the best ways.

Photograph by Alejandro Medellin

Fossil might not be a name brand for smartwatches (they’re very popular for analog watches) in the way an Apple or Galaxy Watch is, but they’re everywhere if you look closely, selling in department stores and online. Fossil’s smartwatches were the first my mom remembers seeing in her transition from using a chunky Garmin watch for tracking runs to something more general purpose. Fossil’s relationship to the world of fashion as a jewelry, watch, and accessory maker gave it an in with stores in a way other companies had to buy.

Not all smartwatch makers are playing with equal hands.

It helps that until now, it’s been a consistent Wear OS partner, too, launching its first Wear OS (then called Android Wear) watch in 2015 and arguably defining the look of early smartwatches in much the same way the Pebble’s colorful plastic and E Ink screens did in 2013. Fossil was unique at the time for making smartwatches that actually looked like normal timepieces, with round dials, bezels, crowns, and metal accents. When Samsung was using thick, square screens, that stood out at the time. Fossil also stuck by Google’s wearable operating system even when the company seemed to have lost interest in its own platform, surviving under-powered Qualcomm chips, and next to no new features for years.

The company’s decision to discontinue its smartwatch line seems to be purely an economic one. In a statement to The Verge, executive vice president and chief operating officer Jeff Boyer said: “Fossil Group is redirecting resources to support our core strength and the core segments of our business that continue to provide strong growth opportunities for us.” Those just happen to be the things Fossil was doing before smartwatches, like jewelry and leather goods. I can’t really blame them for stopping if people aren’t buying them. The competition is tough, and not all smartwatch makers are playing with equal hands.

Samsung and Google

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

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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

Samsung’s been in the smartwatch game for a while. That original Galaxy Gear came out the same year as the Pebble, and the company has 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 the round displays and bezel controls of the 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 was already working about 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 that Google exists as some kind 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’s happy.

Everything Is an Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is an extension of your iPhone and an add-on to it.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

What’s unique about the Apple Watch, besides being a “good” smartwatch, is how much of an accessory it is to the iPhone. We’ve written about the new level of independence Apple has given watches like the Apple Watch Ultra, but anecdotally, the people who I know who own them aren’t using 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 just because it’s good, but because it only works with your iPhone. It’s an extension of all the things you like about your phone, and a few extra sensors. Apple leverages 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’s apps and Samsung’s apps are installed by default on Galaxy phones like the Galaxy S24. Google doesn’t limit any capabilities of the Pixel Watch to Pixel phone owners, but it does make certain Pixel-exclusive software features like call transcriptions usable on the Pixel Watch. A close connection between a smartphone and a smartwatch made by the same company allows for integration and smoother performance that just won’t be possible on a device like the Fossil Gen 6 Smartwatch. How could it ever come out looking more appealing?

Less Choice Helps No One

I can’t definitively say that the Apple way of creating smartwatches and smartphones is what drove Fossil out of business. But it does seem like it probably made it harder to keep up. If there were more options, it might not matter that one company decided to stick to what they’re best at, but other Android smartwatches don't have nearly the same reach.

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

With nothing else to turn to, that leaves Apple, Google, and Samsung in charge of how smartwatches look and work for a majority of people, which is not exactly a vibrant ecosystem, especially when those companies’ smartwatches mainly exist to make their smartphone counterparts harder to give up. Fossil might not have been a giant, but it had a perspective. It was making watches for people who didn’t want to wear a gadget strapped to their wrist. Now it’s gone and it’s hard to imagine some kind of “nonpartisan” smartwatch maker having a chance to ever take its place.

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