by Stephen Mears
It’s difficult to believe that Fossil is already on its 5th generation platform for its Android Wear smartwatches and easy to ask what improvements have been made on a generation by generation basis. Innovation tends to be evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary in the smartwatch market, and certainly from a consumer’s point of view it appears infrequent. Fossil’s generation 5 smartwatch offers advancements in terms of battery life and cross-platform compatibility. However, when compared to advances made with wider technology trends in 2019, such as new tech in VR and the roll out of 5G, new features in the wearables industry have garnered relatively little attention.
Fossil are one of Wear OS’ most prolific hardware vendors. This software choice, however, has often contributed to the lukewarm reception of Fossil’s products, due to the limited standard on-board features and applications available from third party developers. While Google continues to develop and refine their smartwatch OS, it still appears to have a way to go before competing with Tizen or Apple’s Watch OS. Google’s native apps for essential fitness features are reportedly a stumbling block for the OS’ performance overall, negatively impacting the user experience across many Wear OS devices. Google’s difficulties in this area could well continue and therefore limit Fossil’s success moving forward. Given that fashion is Fossil’s area of expertise, it is perhaps unsurprising that they don’t seem to have prioritised fixing these shortcomings.
Nevertheless, the hardware improvements made in the watch could offset Wear OS’ limitations to some degree, with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 3100 SoC, 1GB of RAM, and an integrated, waterproof speaker and microphone all aimed at improving the user experience and dragging Fossil’s hardware to near-parity with its rivals. These hardware developments aren’t necessarily game-changing, landscape-altering improvements, but for a vendor with more expertise in fashion-apparel than in consumer electronics, this represents an important step technologically. Traditional watch brands in the smartwatch space have often been accused of underestimating the need for high-quality technical specifications, an accusation that can fortunately now not be levied against Fossil.
The 3100 SoC is a particularly impressive instalment into the watch, allowing Fossil to manage the power consumption of its watch via hardware. This was a function expected of Wear OS that has not yet been developed and suggests that Fossil are taking more responsibility for the technical functions of its watch, with help from Qualcomm. While Qualcomm will continue to innovate and develop improved SoCs, the 3100 does help to futureproof the Fossil watch. It also provides the engine needed for the use of the Google Assistant. The wearable category as a whole is beginning to move towards increased use of virtual assistants, in line with broader consumer electronics categories, and Fossil’s watch here is in line with this developing trend.
Perhaps the most notable development for Fossil, however, is the eventual integration of Fossil watches with the iPhone, expected this Autumn, that will allow iPhone users to take phone calls via their watch, a first for Wear OS. This opens Fossil’s addressable market to include consumers more likely to have the ability and willingness to pay for a premium smartwatch who perhaps dislike the aesthetic of the Apple watch, though it will not give users complete use of their iPhone beyond managing phone calls and notifications. This is almost a replica of Apple’s own decision to make their watch more independent from the iPhone; at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, they announced steps towards standalone functionality for its watch. The competitive landscape for smartwatches is beginning to open up, with Apple and Wear OS watches beginning to target each other’s consumer base and compete across platforms.
Wear OS remains a challenge for its vendors, while Fossil is a major proponent for Google in the wearable space, the vendor is limited in terms of other OS platforms to adopt. The next generation Fossil watch is not breaking new ground for the category but is at least an attempt to remain relevant until Wear OS develops to the point of being a genuine competitor to its alternatives. If this watch is able to help Fossil compete in a market being dominated by Apple, Samsung and Fitbit, then it may just give Google the time and incentive to improve Wear OS. Fossil continues to provide a lifeline to Google and it may just about pay off.