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Custom UIs could make or break Google and Samsung’s Wear smartwatch software

When Google’s Wear OS software becomes Wear, it will never look the same again. The days of that consistent, familiar, slightly dull Wear OS style have passed, and a future of custom user interfaces on our smartwatches is almost upon us.

Google’s Bjorn Kilburn, director of product management for Wear, said at the platform’s launch: “We’re opening up the platform, empowering [manufacturers] to build watches and a user interface that matches the style and design of their phones.”

Is offering device makers any degree of design freedom over the new software a good idea? Just because a company can design a good smartwatch doesn’t automatically mean it can do the same with the software, but based on the state of Wear OS today, that’s not a reason to stop it from happening. Here, I present the case for and against this big change.

What’s Wear?

Google has not allowed dramatic customization to Wear OS in the past, but that’s about to change. Samsung’s Wear smartwatch will use the One UI Watch interface, which we assume will look something like One UI on current Galaxy Watch models like the Galaxy Watch 3 — and that’s excellent. It’s attractively designed, logically laid out, and combined with the smartwatch’s rotating bezel, fun and fluid to navigate.

Samsung's circular One UI interface on the Galaxy Watch 3.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Samsung’s designers and engineers have spent time and money getting it right, and the result is a platform that is better to use than Google’s Wear OS. The Wear platform’s openness means One UI Watch can be used on Samsung’s next watch even in the absence of Tizen, where it should hopefully return a very similar experience. There’s no need for concern at the moment, but what about the many other companies looking to customize Wear?

Samsung’s deep pockets and years of research and development have helped it make One UI not only a success on wearables but also on its Android smartphones, however it has taken time to do this, and that may not be the case for every company looking to exploit Wear’s customization, where the openness could easily become a negative in the hands of the less experienced. It could go either way, so let’s start with the positives before looking at the negatives.

Why it could be a good thing

  • Wear smartwatches won’t all be the same. Smartwatches with Wear OS are really only differentiated by the design, but with the chance to customize the UI, that’s going to change a little with Wear. At the moment, companies like Mobvoi install plenty of apps and slightly tweak the app menu itself to add (questionable) value, but all of Wear OS’ downsides and its basic style remain. Add its current custom touches to a “TicUI” (I guarantee that’s what it would be called), and a Wear-powered TicWatch suddenly becomes a full-fledged, on-brand Mobvoi product. Whether it’ll be good or not is another thing, but at least a Mobvoi smartwatch will definitely look different from one made by another company — and that will be welcomed by all.
  • A cohesive look. Being able to match the style of the software on a smartwatch to the smartphone will be attractive to many companies, where brand synergy (apologies for the business speak) really matters. Even app developers can get on board with this, due to the swipe-in Tiles also being open and customizable in Wear. Outside of the business reasons, repeating UI design on a smartwatch is good for us, too, as there is potential to make apps and services more natural and familiar to use. Once someone is used to a user interface, learning a new one takes time and effort, and may be a barrier to purchase. On a more basic level, who doesn’t like it when things match up?
Hublot Big Bang e special edition smartwatch.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
  • More attractive to watch brands. Watch brands that so far have not made a smartwatch may be encouraged to do so if they can truly replicate their own brand on one. A custom-designed watch face will never be enough, but to bring the entire operating system in line with traditional watches and the company’s own style — so important in the world of watches — may help. Tag Heuer and Hublot have already successfully experimented with this, with Tag Heuer including on-brand stopwatch and golf apps, and Hublot integrating its brand partnerships into special-edition smartwatches. Wear’s customization may encourage them, and others, to go a step further.

Why it could be a bad thing

  • UIs not designed by UI designers. Remember the early days of Android, when every device maker made a custom user interface? If you do, then you’ll also remember that for every one, decent interface, there were several that were awful. Designing user interfaces is really hard, and it takes a lot of time and research to get it looking and working in the best way possible. By opening Wear up in this way, the temptation will be there for some to go crazy in an effort to “personalize” the look of the watch’s interface, or entrust UI design to those who don’t really understand UI design. Less is usually more, especially on a small wrist-worn device, but this mantra could quickly be abandoned as brands try to stand out on the cheap. It’s certainly the direction some of the worst, messiest, and most obnoxiously animated examples of early Android interfaces took.
  • It may cancel out creativity. Having design freedom can also go in a less positive direction, where interfaces start to all look the same as they all adopt what’s most popular. There’s a danger that companies without the budget or resources (or the will) to develop a unique interface may be tempted to create one “influenced” by a popular smartwatch’s software. For example, Apple’s WatchOS is very popular, works really well on the Apple Watch, and has a distinct look. The opportunity to design the user interface, but without the resources to dedicate to the task, could mean the easy way out is taken in some areas. Just look at Huawei’s choice for HarmonyOS 2’s UI on the Huawei Watch 3 for evidence of this design similarity happening already.
The app grid menu on the Huawei Watch 3
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
  • It may not solve any of Wear OS’ problems. Google’s tight hold over Wear OS’s look was never its problem — it was always what was underneath that let it down. The platform’s poor performance, short battery life, and unreliable notifications will never be solved by making it look prettier. Google and Samsung say these issues are being addressed in Wear, but device manufacturers will likely have to ensure the software works properly with the hardware for us to fully benefit from any deep improvements. Getting all this right needs just as much attention as making a flashy UI, if not more.

Questions and potential

The Google/Samsung Wear platform, with help from Fitbit, is one filled with promise and opportunity. While we know customization is part of the plan, we don’t know the full extent of how much smartwatch makers will be able to customize the look of the UI, or how many developers will make custom Tiles, or even whether Samsung’s One UI Watch will look the same on a Wear watch as it does on a current Galaxy Watch.

What is clear is all the companies involved are eager to bring the stagnant Wear OS up to date, and give manufacturers more incentive to make more interesting and unique smartwatches. Wear OS is a piece of relatively faceless software with more than its fair share of problems, so any attempt to mix it up is welcome, provided the above pitfalls can be successfully avoided.  Samsung’s next Galaxy Watch, expected sometime in the summer, will give us our first look at what the future of Wear will be.

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Andy Boxall
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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