Custom Watch Faces

A weekend Twitter thread regarding custom watch faces for Android Wear and the prospects of custom faces for Apple Watch led me to FaceRepo, a repository of downloadable watch faces for Android Wear. Remember the sites with “skins” for SoundJam and Audion? Like that, but for Android Wear. A few thoughts that went through my mind after perusing the offerings:

  • I don’t expect Apple to open up watch faces to arbitrary designs, even when the full Apple Watch SDK ships later this year. If they do allow third-party faces, I think it’ll be through design partners hand-selected by Apple. (The Mickey face is arguably an example of this already.) The idea of fully-customizable watch faces is right in the sweet spot between the differing philosophies of Google (anything goes) and Apple (tightly controlled). Apple Watch currently offers 10 different faces, and most of those faces offer a lot of customization regarding which complications are visible, and the tint colors. It’s a lot of fun to play with, but here’s the thing: there is no way to set up a watch face that is ugly, or that doesn’t look very Apple-Watch-y. Even the Mickey face looks like an Apple Watch Mickey face, because of the San Francisco font on the hour markers and the complications. That is by design, and I don’t see that changing.

  • Among those in favor of full customization, Andy Ihnatko tweeted: “Like, what if Apple said ‘We don’t trust you to choose well-designed iPhone wallpaper.’” We don’t have to imagine — that’s exactly what Apple did until iOS 4 in 2010. For the first three years of the iPhone, you got a black background on your home screen and you liked it. This is what makes Apple so polarizing, and often unpopular with the tinkering crowd — they will limit user configurability, often severely, in the name of design purity and brand consistency. “This is what we, the designers of this product, want it to look like” vs. “Go ahead and make it look however you, the user, want it to look”.

  • I’m a little surprised at how heavily skeuomorphic many of these Android Wear faces are — they’re heavy on 3D lighting effects, textures, drop shadows, and in some cases even fake watch crystal gloss. That aesthetic feels surprisingly dated to my eyes today. That’s not just an Apple thing, either — Android’s Material Design has moved just as far from skeuomorphic textures. The default faces for most Android Wear devices are not like this (but some are), but these third-party ones skew heavily towards this blingy Kai’s Power Tools aesthetic.

  • And then there’s this one, which made my day.

  • To be fair to Google, the third-party faces featured on their Play Store are more in tune with the Material Design aesthetic. But most of them are very colorful. These, for example, fit right in with Material Design — and would stick out like sore thumbs on Apple Watch. Apple’s watch faces all have black backgrounds, as does the rest of the Apple Watch interface. That’s because Apple Watch has an OLED display, which doesn’t need to turn on pixels to show black — it’s a design aesthetic and an energy-saving move. (Update: I didn’t mean to imply here that Android Wear watches don’t use OLED displays, too — but clearly the Android Wear UI was not designed with black backgrounds in mind.)

  • Third-party watch faces for Pebble are generally terrible, even considering the constraints of the Pebble Watch display. This might improve with the upcoming Pebble Time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I just can’t see Apple ever allowing these sort of watch faces for Apple Watch — that’ll be left for the jailbreak crowd. A few weeks ago I thought third-party watch faces would be like third-party apps were for the iPhone — something that wasn’t there at the launch, but which came sooner rather than later. Having spent three weeks with Apple Watch, I feel differently now. Apps are the apps of Apple Watch — that’s where there will be thousands of third-party designs. Watch Faces are different. They’re more fundamental to the device.

Apple will almost certainly introduce more built-in faces eventually, including some that allow for more personalization. In September, they showed two that have since been removed: Timelapse (they showed two options: one with Big Ben and Parliament at night in London; the other showed a scenic lake and mountain) and Photo (which, in Apple’s press materials, showed a snapshot of friends at a beach).1 And they might work with hand-selected partners like Disney to create additional faces like the Mickey one. But I don’t think they’re ever going to open the gates to App Store-style “anyone can make a watch face” watch faces. I think Apple sees watch faces as part of the system, like the lock and home screens for iOS. We’re eight years into iOS and there still isn’t any support for third-party lock or home screens. I expect the same thing for watch faces.

  1. It seems pretty obvious why Apple nixed these two faces: they’re the ones that use the most energy on an OLED display. Just about every compromise I’ve noticed in Apple Watch OS 1.0 is in the service of extending battery life at all costs. ↩︎