After five long years, Google has finally done what every other major smartwatch maker has already figured out: How to add widgets.
In a blog, Google announced today it’s adding a feature called Tile to Wear OS ahead of its I/O event next week. It works by adding swipeable shortcuts to popular apps on your Android-friendly smartwatch. To access them, you swipe left from the main screen. Even though it’s got a different name, it’s basically the exact same thing as the widgets you already get on Samsung’s Tizen operating system on its Galaxy Watches. Functionally, it’s also similar to the complications you’ll find on various Apple Watch clock faces.
The “Tiles” as Google calls them – let’s be real, they’re widgets – will be limited. For now, the only ones available will be: Goals, Next event, Forecast (weather), Heart rate, Headlines, and Timer. Even with the limited options, Android smartwatch users should rejoice. Previously, to access your most commonly used apps you still had to go through the main menu or sift through the Google Play store for a separate widget app or comb through the thousands of Wear OS watch faces for one that lets you customise complications without melting your eyes with its hideousness. Some watches would let you program shortcuts if it had multiple buttons, but that depended on an individual watch’s design. If you opted for a watch with a single button, you were kind of screwed.
All this to say, you could get widgets on Wear OS previously. It was just way more effort than necessary. Google adding them natively is a massive improvement to the overall Wear OS experience.
But while this is a much-needed update, it’s hardly an innovation. Other smartwatch platforms have had widgets, complications, shortcuts – whatever you want to call them – for years now. This is really just Google playing catchup to the bare minimum. Visually, I can’t stress enough how much this looks like a carbon copy of Samsung’s interface, without adding a Tile that’s specifically unique to Wear OS. (Samsung, for instance, has a stress monitoring widget.)
Still, Google does deserve credit for massively overhauling the Wear OS interface over the past year. It’s done wonders for the platform’s usability as a whole. In addition to improving Google Assistant on the wrist, a few months ago it added swipeable access to the Google Fit screen – clearly, a test run for Tiles.
According to Google, the new Tiles will be rolling out gradually to Wear OS smartwatches over the next month. It also added that “certain features will vary by phone OS, watch, or country,” which might mean that iPhone users might have a slightly worse experience. (Then again, that’s generally true for any iPhone user using an Android watch.)
All-in-all, this tracks with Google’s recent renewed interest in smartwatches after spending years on the back burner. Earlier in January, it acquired some researchers and tech from Fossil, its longest-standing wearable partner. Do any of these incremental improvements signal a Pixel watch popping up this year? Probably not, but at the very least we should start seeing a better batch of Android smartwatches – and that is long overdue.