Qualcomm’s Feeling the Heat Over Its Android Smartwatch Chips

Qualcomm’s Feeling the Heat Over Its Android Smartwatch Chips
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

There are a lot of reasons why Google’s Wear OS smartwatch platform has stagnated over the years, but a major factor was that the majority of its smartwatches were running on outdated processors from Qualcomm. But now that Google and Samsung have partnered to build a new platform — and Samsung’s new watches are rumoured to feature a beefy new processor — it seems like Qualcomm’s finally feeling pressure, announcing it will “roll out new Snapdragon Wear platforms” in the next year.

The news comes via a press release announcing the Qualcomm Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator Program. Citing an increased interest in the space, Qualcomm says it’s “significantly growing [its] investments in leading-edge ground-up silicon” and its accelerator program is meant to help wearable makers brainstorm how to deliver a good experience, for less money and with faster production times. More than 60 companies have purportedly signed on, including Arm, Fossil, Mobvoi, Oppo, Verizon, and Vodafone.

Up until now, it’s been unclear what Qualcomm was planning to do after Google and Samsung’s huge announcement that they were partnering on a new unified wearable platform. The new Wear OS is expected to arrive next month on two Samsung smartwatches, but as of yet, there’s no clear timeline as to when existing Wear OS watches might get an upgrade — if they get one at all. (Google recently updated the current Wear OS’s Play Store, hinting it plans to support the platform for a while yet.) Meanwhile, Qualcomm’s messaging has been… muddled, to say the least.

One question is what Qualcomm means when it says it’s rolling out new platforms. If they’re referring to a new SoC, hoo boy. That doesn’t bode entirely well for its current Snapdragon Wear 4100/4100+ platform, which has thus far been used in only two smartwatches despite launching more than a year ago. The Fossil Gen 6 will likely run on the 4100, as the group confirmed the watch would run on the new Wear OS, and yet another flagship watch on the 3100 would be beyond ridiculous. Three smartwatches in a year, before pushing out a new SoC? That’s not quite admitting failure, but it’s not far off.

It also paints a not-so-great picture of Wear OS’s reach. Qualcomm says that over the past five years, it’s shipped more than 40 million units across 250 wearable products. By comparison, Apple shipped 33.9 million Apple Watches in 2020 alone, a 19% increase from the year before. It’s well known that the Apple Watch is the most successful smartwatch by sales, but this is a stark illustration of how the gap with Android smartwatches has only been widening.

There are positives to take from this. Even if the 4100 platform is ultimately a flop, it’s a good sign that Qualcomm is doing anything at all. They dragged their feet, waiting two years to update the 2100 to the 3100 — and even then they were using incredibly outdated tech. The 4100 was a significant jump from the 3100, but even that’s running on tech that was first introduced more than five years ago.

We’ll have to see what comes next, as Qualcomm hasn’t impressed in this space for a long time and Samsung has already thrown down the gauntlet with a rumoured 5nm Exynos chip. However, it’s at least an encouraging sign that everyone is aware that this new Wear OS is a critical opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.