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New indie project could lead to a bunch of Wear OS smartwatch competitors

Soon, there could be a number of indie operating systems for your smartwatch, sprouting from an open-source code project launched last week. Indie developers making budget smartwatches can now use starting code from Project OpenWatch to craft their Android-based operating systems. The OpenWatch project is live as of last week. It was released by Blocks, the same company behind the forthcoming Blocks modular smartwatch.

Blocks’ head of engineering, Karl Taylor, said that the project is meant to “open up the smartwatch OS space to the open source community in a bid to loosen the stranglehold on the industry by other, essentially proprietary operating system.” He named Google’s Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) and Apple’s watchOS as the two major operating systems that currently dominate smartwatches. While there are a number of options for hardware companies to choose from, Taylor said none of them provided the flexibility companies need to truly customize a watch’s hardware.

Project OpenWatch is an attempt to let developers do that. It isn’t a standalone operating system. Instead, it gives developers a support package that allows them to customize the open-source version of Android to their liking and attach the OS to hardware more easily. Blocks calls it “the first piece of the puzzle somebody would need to develop the next big wearable OS.”

Blocks got the idea for Project OpenWatch when it was developing its modular smartwatch and found that Apple’s watchOS, Google’s Wear OS, and Tizen all didn’t support the plug-and-play modules it wanted to include, according to Liliputing. Blocks then crafted its own proprietary Android-based OS, which required the company to create an interface for its software to talk to the watch’s hardware. Blocks decided to give away the interface it had designed so that other developers could more easily connect their own operating systems with their hardware. At the same time, Blocks hoped it would get “a little bit of help with improving their own device” as developers provide feedback and input. All of this will hopefully one day lead to some alternatives to Android Wear.

Before OpenWatch was made public, Blocks tested out the project with two partners, several developers from the open-community of CarbonROM and the open-source community that works on LineageOS (the successor to CyanogenMod). Both groups are building Android Oreo-based operating systems on top of OpenWatch, though neither has announced release plans yet.

At launch, OpenWatch already supports several lower-end watches, including the Lemfo LES1, the Zeblaze Thor, the Look Watch, and the Kingwear KW88, among others. Blocks said it aimed for devices that were in the sub-$100 range so that it could “lower the financial barrier-to-entry to devs getting started with this.”

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