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Upcoming Wear OS update will make third-party apps much harder to use

Wear OS watch face
(Image credit: Google)

Wear OS will start making it more difficult to install third-party apps on your wearable devices from March 10, according to an email sent to developers. The Google-run software installed across a slew of smartwatch devices – such as the Fossil Sport and TicWatch Pro 3 – will remove key features that allowed users to ‘sideload’ apps from their phones onto their Wear OS smartwatches with ease.

Google doesn’t seem to be targeting third-party apps specifically with the update. The change is instead intended to make Wear OS apps more discoverable on the Play Store and reduce the file size of apps that are already available on the platform. 

Rather than have the phone and Wear OS versions bundled in one package, the Play Store apps will be split into two versions. However, the change will lock out any apps not available on the store.

The current 'legacy' model, which is going away permanently, allowed users to install apps from their phones onto their Wear OS device. This meant if a person had installed a third-party APK on their phone, the same app could be installed on their smartwatch. 

Why use third-party apps on Wear OS? 

This new change might be seen as a blow to Android’s typically more open platform, compared to iOS where users have less freedom to install non-Play Store apps on their devices. While installing unapproved apps comes with its share of risks, there are benefits, too. Users can find apps that may perform differently to authorized ones or can install region-locked programs, and developers won’t have to share app revenue with Google.

For Wear OS devices, sideloading also allowed unofficial developers to create Wear OS optimized versions of pre-existing apps or mods to improve the user interface on a different-sized screen. 

Until more details are released, though, we aren’t sure how installing third-party apps will work, if it will be possible at all, but Wear OS users could be forced to use tools like Android Debug Bridge if they want to download their own programs.

We're waiting to hear from Google on whether it plans to develop a new pathway for third-party apps onto Wear OS devices – and we'll be sure to update you if we hear more.