As we saw recently, Samsung has partially jettisoned its own proprietary operating system and has buddied up with Google to take Wear OS onto greater and better things in 2021 and beyond.
Why would you think Garmin knows best by being different?
A Garmin Wear OS Watch is not as far-fetched a thought as you might think. The market definitely has a future and money is there to be made in the medium to long term.
This is speculation and builds on similar content from 2018.
Wear OS vs watch OS vs Garmin CIQ
vs FitOS vs Pebble OS vs Tizen (Samsung) vs….several other proprietary ones
Wear OS is Google’s smartwatch operating system that comes pre-bundled with support for advanced features like maps, music and payments. It has high levels of integration with Android smartphone and also works well on Apple’s iOS smartphones. Google FIT underpins the health infrastructure and Google Play is the impressive app store. Any 3rd party can add Wear OS to their hardware, although often that hardware is based on Qualcomm SnapDragon.
Apple is different…
watchOS is Apple’s smartwatch operating system that only works on Apple Watches and it too supports maps, music and payments but it only works with Apple’s iPhones. Apple’s AppStore is huge and Apple Health is the underlying health repository that sports and fitness apps can use if they want to share with other apps.
Garmin is different…
Garmin smartwatches rely on the Garmin Connect platform which works equally well on Android smartphones and iPhones. Garmin loosely ringfences its data in Connect but supports many 3rd party linkups. Garmin has wide-reaching sports capabilities which are extended by its proprietary CIQ app store and these ‘apps’ work only on Garmin watches. Whilst it has extensive map-based intelligence, Garmin uses 3rd party maps and it has to also negotiate its own contracts to support contactless payments. CIQ is sufficiently open to enable all 3rd party music providers to add their service if they chose to…which they don’t.
The key to understanding the difference between the players is to appreciate that there are SMART watches and HEALTH/FITNESS watches, perhaps you might also add a class of more extreme ATHLETIC watches too. The lines between these are all blurred. Simplistically let’s say that Garmin comes from the ATHLETIC end and Apple & Google come from the SMART end of the spectrum. Everyone wants the middle ground where smartness and Fitness overlap. Ultimately whoever controls the middle ground is the one that wins in the long term. Simplistically there are tens upon tens of millions of runners & gym-goers in that middle ground but FAR fewer wannabe athletes and technophiles at the extremes.
So Garmin is trying to become ever SMARTer with watches like Vivoactive/Venu.
However, whilst Apple and Google are trying to become a little fitter they are more focused on building a super-smart health & wellness platform. Apple and Google are not especially aiming to compete at the athletic end of the market. All they aim to do there is provide the capability for 3rd party apps to do that…and that’s already been largely done.
Thus Apple & Google are strategically fighting against each other for platform dominance. They probably don’t especially care about Garmin as, almost by accident, their ever-improving platforms grow and encroach on Garmin and all the competition. Garmin, on the other hand, dominates the ATHLETIC end of the market and it just so happens that very many smart and fitness people buy Garmin too. From a strategic perspective, Garmin has to maintain its athletic dominance whilst also trying to keep up with the latest, greatest tech innovations.
Personally, I think Garmin’s apparent strategy is ultimately unsustainable. Think 10 years time rather than 10 months.
Apple announces a new watch every September. Let’s play a game and assume they release a version that has a lowish resolution LCD-type screen. Voila, Apple easily gets a 7-day battery life. Garmin has no magic juice, there is no secret ingredient of Garmin’s battery longevity it just uses a few low powered items like a low-resolution screen to get an apparent step-change improvement in battery life over the competitors. It really is that simple. Do they have a better system chip, heart rate sensor and GPS chip than Apple? Of course not. Different, yes but better…no. If Apple makes that imaginary watch, which will NOT happen in 2021, then wannabe athletes of course won’t stop buying Garmin…some will…not many, it’s just that Garmin WILL progressively lose the middle ground. Soon enough their current business model won’t work.
Garmin obviously knows this and I’ve talked before about why AMOLED is one of their futures. It’s LESS certain that Wear OS is one of Garmin’s futures.
RECOMMENDED READING: Garmin Fenix 7 capabilities are relatively predictable
There are more Android smartphones than Apple smartphones. Yet there are more Apple watches than there are watches running Wear OS. Indeed, the Apple Watch is the best selling watch…ever.
Nevertheless, whichever way you want to cut it, the WearOS platform could support a large, growing and currently untapped ‘market’ for Garmin device sales.
These charts don’t feel 100% correct to me but let’s take them as indicative that the Wear OS market has probably taken a turn for the worst over the last year or two when it appeared to stagnate both in terms of feature improvements and new watches that supported it.
I strongly suspect that is all about to change now that the combined forces of Google, Fitbit, Samsung, Qualcomm and others appear to be working closely together to make Wear OS a success. In a growing market, there are related opportunities for Fossil, BBK, Suunto and of course Garmin too.
Users of Wear OS
My suspicion would be that most Wear OS users use the Android phone-based platform for many of the free, excellent, smart features and connected features on offer from Google. using the fitness features for these watch owners is likely little more than an after-thought.
Yet, there WILL also be many Wear OS users who use a 3rd party SPORTS/FITNESS apps like Runtastic for recording their fitness activities and sports. Perhaps they once used the smartphone Runtastic app ‘back in the day’ or arrived at it accidentally or by some other means.
On the other hand, I’ve NEVER seen a single wannabe athlete using a Wear OS watch (except me). I’m sure there are plenty, I just haven’t seen them.
But I have noticed an ever-increasing number of Apple Watch users at my local tri club, though perhaps the more serious amongst us use Garmin or Polar as our own personal badge of tri-honour.
Problems With Wear OS for Sports
Other than the issue of the battery vs. screen tech conundrum, I don’t see any massive problem for a sports-focused watch to be made to work well enough on Wear OS. I’ve used the Suunto 7 a fair bit. It’s over a year old now in tech terms but it’s still an awesome watch and by far the best sports watch for Wear OS. People have criticisms of it which are almost always criticising the app on the Android phone…not the Suunto Wear OS app nor the Suunto 7 watch hardware.
The Suunto Wear OS app is superior to most sports apps on the Apple watch…just sayin’.
Coming from a wannabe athlete’s perspective it’s easy to criticise the smart Suunto 7 on advanced sports capabilities if you really wanted to. But do Garmin’s smarts support all my credit cards? A: No. they’re not likely to either. Yet Suunto is making notable inroads to better feature sets month on month (ish!). That’s just an illustration that 3rd party Wear OS apps can eventually catch and perhaps beat some aspects of what Garmin does. Can Wear OS apps use STRYD?…yes. Can Wear OS link to bike power meters?…yes. Can Wear OS apps link to chest straps?…yes. And so the checklist of clever sporty things that can be accomplished with Wear OS goes on. It’s just that ONE company needs to grab the checklist and start ticking off MORE boxes.
Sure the platform is a little power-hungry but Polar managed a decent sports device with the M600 a few years back.
Sure the platform often makes use of touchscreens but even the one(ish) buttoned Apple Watch can let an app customise the button to take a lap…which is mostly all you need buttons for. Unless you have a top-end Polar watch when the athletes then want a touchscreen to add a lap by tapping it…sometimes the watchmakers can’t win!
With a new generation of more power-efficient WearOS chips already launching in 2021 then the battery ‘issue’ will be broadly similar to that faced by the Apple Watch.
Benefits of Wear OS for Sports
There’s no truly athletic reason for any manufacturer to use Wear OS. The benefits come with the pre-loaded smart features & integrations that either provide a great experience in themselves or augment our amateur sporty lives – for example, listening to music, following a route or buying a coffee after a run. Those, plus the pre-built tight integration with both the Android and iOS operating systems via the Wear OS parent app that sits on the smartphone. All the hard smart stuff is done for you by Google.
However, these smart features are increasingly becoming differentiators for sports watches whose sports features are often similar to the competition. Remember in 2019ish when Music was a big thing? Imagine how many more watches Garmin sold because of their music support when compared to Polar/Suunto’s traditional sports range…you’ll need a big imagination. It’s a LOT more.
SMARTs win sales.
What Would Garmin Want Out Of This?
It’s all about the money.
Quite. But how would they leverage a move into WearOS to make the money? And would such a move be a strategic one, recognising the longer-term trends within sports tech?
Garmin would make the money on the sale of the hardware and they would expect this to not cannibalize the sales of their other watches too much. Rather they would hope to eat into the sales of mid-tier Apple Watches and other Android-loving athletes who also want a beautiful, beautiful screen and lots and lots of non-sport functionality.
Specifically, Garmin also would be looking to secure a hardware upgrade path for these initial WearOS buyers, some of whom might then go on to buy ‘proper’ Garmin sports devices to support their activity/sports data that they have already put into the Garmin Connect sports data platform via links within WearOS. Or maybe it’s a way in to get everyone in the household onto a Garmin watch? Apple does a great job there with how they share subscriptions and other information throughout your family (with permissions).
How might a Garmin WearOS device fit into the Garmin Connect Infrastructure?
The ‘infrastructure model’ that Polar/Suunto followed with the M600/S7 seems, to me, a sensible one. They both produced a WearOS compatible piece of hardware and added a special WearOS app just for recording sports – both good app in their day. All of the other stuff like maps, notifications, music and much more is handled by WearOS. Then the Wear OS app linked back to the existing Polar FLOW or Suunto app on the smartphone
Similarly for Garmin; if Garmin use WearOS there is no point and no need to replicate the add-on services that WearOS delivers out-of-the-box.
Garmin would broadly implement the tech just like Polar/Suunto did ie a complex but achievable Garmin Connect app in WearOS that syncs activity/sport/sleep data back to the existing Garmin Connect Mobile platform on your smartphone.
There would hopefully be the ability to include some of Garmin’s sensors like the ELEVATE oHR sensor which would beat any other WearOS vendor’s offering and I’m sure that Garmin would do the best they could to ensure a half-decent GPS setup.
For a company of Garmin’s great resources that doesn’t sound too hard at all. It’s NOT ANYTHING like building a competitor to the Apple Watch from scratch, yet that is precisely what this would be: a ‘proper’ competitor to the Apple Watch. The Venu/Vivoactive is NOT a proper competitor to the Apple Watch…it’s not smart enough.
So, Will My Garmin Connect WearOS App Take me Through A Triathlon?
A: Almost certainly not!…single sports only please.
Those of you looking for a rich and immersive experience with your imaginary Garmin Connect WearOS app would be disappointed. The sports component of its app would initially comprise basic sport profiles and some decent 3rd party sensor support but no CIQ apps
Here are some of the screens from the WearOS app that Polar developed for the M600 in 2016. Personally, I think they still look good, though buyers would probably expect a little more functionality today.
The activity/sleep data would optionally sync back to Health/Fit via Garmin Connect – easy enough.
Problems? Other Points
There are always problems. The more optimistic amongst us will remember that Nietzsche probably once said that ‘a problem is a solution just waiting to happen‘ but in German.
- Someone could quite easily buy the Garmin WearOS watch and then use the Endomondo app or the STRAVA app to capture sports data. Grrr that means they won’t be tied into Garmin Connect
- Except…down the line they might be.
- Oh. And of course, Garmin make the money from the sale of the Watch. Which is where the money is made in any case.
- I don’t know if Garmin could repurpose much of their existing hardware or if they would have to go with the SnapDragon platform. I assume buying in large chunks of Qualcomm hardware would be much easier but would eat into the high margins that Garmin expects. That said, I would imagine that Google are offering sweeteners to many companies this year to make Wear OS a success.
- Customers expect predictable performance characteristics from models from the same manufacturer, so a Vivoactive/Venu or Fenix user just might automatically assume a better battery life than the reality of what Wear OS might deliver. Similarly, Suunto found that even their excellent Wear OS app was criticised as it lacked specialist features that were bread-and-butter on other Suunto watches. Thus any Garmin app on Wear OS would need to be excellent from day 1 to maintain its reputation.
- Someone could buy a Fossil/Fitbit 2021 and run the Garmin WearOS app on it.
- Garmin could restrict which devices the app works on easily enough
- The most likely ‘problem’ is that the market opportunity is seen to be too small for Garmin once various caveats are added. There are relatively low barriers to entry despite a notable amount of internal resources that would be needed to be put onto what might just be a peripheral project.
Take Out – Will it ever actually happen?
You can be CERTAIN that Garmin has thought about this.
Maybe Garmin has been performing well partly because Wear OS has had a few years languishing in Google-induced neglect? That’s going to change VERY soon…like in Q3.2021.
Most of you reading this (and me) are sporty types and may even call ourselves athletes. Maybe we sometimes forget that there is a MUCH bigger market out there for ‘activity’, ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ devices. We know what we want from a sports watch and, maybe, WearOS struggles to deliver that…but the market of ‘not us’ is BIG. Really big.
The kerching factor ($$$) IS there for Garmin but only if Wear OS prospers – I think it will
Garmin’s current devices simply do not compete effectively, head-to-head with the smarts of WearOS/WatchOS and probably never will. They don’t have the beauty and depth of (connected-) functionality nor the onscreen user experience.
Developing a directly competing infrastructure to those two behemoths is simply not going to happen; at least not by Garmin. Clearly, Apple’s watchOS is closed to current Garmin hardware and so the only way Garmin has to enter a much smarter, connected, prettier and feature-rich world IS via a new WearOS compatible piece of hardware. (Venu will only ever partly do that)
I’ve said before, in the longer term even the likes of Garmin could fail as they fight the tech juggernauts of Apple and Google – not forgetting the juggernauts of the future from China that many of you might not even have heard of. Google will continue to support WearOS as a strategic imperative, WearOS WILL prosper in the future. Getting on the WearOS bandwagon, in my opinion, would be a good strategic bet for Garmin. Even if Wear OS failed, Garmin would still have the fallback to the current position. It’s a safe bet with a known downside.
How good will WearOS be in 3-5 years time? I don’t know, but I’d bet it would be better and more able to handle some of our more rigorous ‘needs’ for sports!
Yet, Garmin may well see it differently. Maybe their future is seen through the apptastic eyes of the partly shielded world of CIQ and new AMOLED screens?
If Garmin don’t make this move pretty soon then, at some point in the not too distant future, they may well realise their mistake.
Will it happen? I’d say 30% at some point.
Will it happen in 2021? I’d say a 95% chance of NO