According to an email Google is sending out to Wear OS developers, sideloading apps that aren't available on the Play Store is about to get a lot more complicated starting March 10. You'll no longer be able to sideload apps from your phone via the Play Store -> Apps on your phone section on watches, making it next to impossible to add unapproved apps to your watch without turning to tools meant for developers, like the Android Debug Bridge (ADB).
Developer Malcolm Bryant reached out to us with the email he received. Google explains that the change is part of a move away from the legacy embedded app model that allowed developers to add Wear OS code to Android apps. Eliminating this distribution method will make phone apps smaller for everyone, as people will no longer have to download Wear OS code to their phones even if they don't have Wear OS devices.
However, the ability to rely on the legacy app model is particularly important for apps that aren't available on the Play Store at all, which affects a lot of Bryant's own projects. The change will make sideloading apps like these much more difficult for regular folks as it requires activating development tools on smartwatches. They'll now have to enable developer options on their watches' settings and push apps via ADB.
Moves like these shouldn't be too surprising given Google is working on tightening control over its apps and devices. It only recently introduced new security measures that prevent sideloading a few Google apps on Android 11, and getting Android apps on Chrome OS without using the Play Store has always been a big hassle. The change is quite understandable in the Wear OS case, though. The company wants to decouple Wear OS apps from Android apps, and the new sideloading restriction appears to be a victim caught in the crossfire. Many developers who publish their apps to the Play Store have switched over to the new app distribution model already anyway, so this mostly hits apps that are distributed elsewhere.
- Malcolm Bryant