Apple Watch and the costs of custom faces

This has led to the typical angst seen before any major Apple product launch, where the culture of the company and the limits of resources clash with the expectations and imaginations of customers everywhere. Whereby everywhere, I mean the internet. John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

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.

You'll be able to customize some of the built-in faces — Chronograph, Color, Modular, Utility, Mickey Mouse, Simple, Motion, Solar, and Astronomy — by changing the level of detail, the color, and/or the complications they support, but that's as far as it goes for now.

Back in September of 2014, as John points out, Apple Watch included two additional faces — Timelapse and Photos. The former showed animated landmarks like Big Ben. The latter let you pick your own image as a wallpaper behind the face. Both lit up a lot of pixels which, given how OLED displays work, were "expensive" in terms of battery life.

There's no ambient mode, as far as I know, yet implemented to reduce that cost. Which is why custom watch faces would likewise prove "expensive" right now, and for reasons beyond battery life.

There have been a lot of theories as to why it took until the second generation iPhone for third party apps — custom apps, so to speak — to ship. One of the most practical reasons is that it took so much time and effort for the team to ship the iPhone itself that there was nothing and no one left to even begin making an SDK. After launch, the team that had just finished one marathon of sprints had to immediately engage in another just to get the App Store ready for the next year.

Features are "expensive" when it comes to resources. Working on one means you can't work on another, not at the same time. It's en vogue for everyone to complain about software stability and lack of features in sequential breaths, of course, but it's not realistic.

Apple has only promised native watch apps for later this year, for example. Native code on the watch, at the very least, would seem to be a prerequisite for custom watch faces.

Culturally, though, I agree with John — it's hard to see Apple having a completely open watch face store for the same reason there's been no theme store to change iOS icons and interface elements, no SDK for the post-iOS 7 motion wallpapers, and on, and on.

It's easier to see a partner strategy where, like channels on the Apple TV or results on Siri, Apple makes deals for faces such as Mickey Mouse on a case-by-case basis. There's certainly room for more even in the existing watch face switching system. (Personally, I'd love a Superman watch face, though Disney owns Marvel and not DC, alas.)

That's probably not what people who like to tinker and customize want to hear, but anyone who likes to tinker and customize should be used to hearing just that when it comes to Apple. (The idea of policing the App Store for the kind of intellectual property rights violations that typically come with theme repositories, especially given the spotlight under which Apple operates, likely also holds incredibly little appeal.)

I try to never say never when it comes to Apple, because the company does change, and occasionally throws curve balls or calls for a Crazy Ivan. Perhaps one day there'll be custom watch face extensions, the way there are now custom keyboard extensions.

For right now, however, everything from battery life to engineering resources to company culture mean no custom watch faces at launch. And that might take a while to change, if ever.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

33 Comments
  • That's a total bummer. I'm the type of guy who doesn't like going with the built-in stuff, preferring 3rd party watch faces over the built-in ones.
  • And the BAD NEWS with Apple Watch just keeps coming and coming ... Obviously, there are a lot of "developers" out there who would rush to fill the void with their tacky, unartistic junk watch faces that drain the battery. I disagree completely however that this situation means Apple is "right" or "doing a good thing" or whatever in not letting people make custom watch faces. I'm a HUGE Apple supporter and user since the days of Apple II, and anyone who's ever read my comments knows that I typically defend Rene, and that I'm not one of those idiots that blasts each and every article he writes with something to the effect of "He's drinking the Kool-Aide." However ... this is exactly that. How many more whacks with the cane will we take from our Apple "masters" before we stop saying "please sir, can I have another?" They could easily open up the watch faces to developers but simply maintain some standards vis a vis battery life and aesthetics. The idea that "we shouldn't have access to this, and it's a *good* thing," is ludicrous IMO.
  • I'm not sure I understand your comment. It's a first gen product, it's going to be missing things. Some will come later, some won't. There aren't even native apps yet, and that would seem to be a prerequisite, at the very least, for custom watch faces. Like I said, I'd love a Superman watch face, but not having it is pretty low down on my list for this launch.
  • I was reacting to the perception driven by Gruber that custom watch faces will "never" happen, except for when deal are made with certain corporations like Marvel etc. The very idea that Apple would restrict all custom watch faces by third parties (excepting these sketchy possible "deals" with advertising potential), is offensive IMO. The secondary argument is that this is indeed an awful thing and I'm just a bit tired of the fact that no one seems to want to call a spade a spade here. No one wants to take Apple to task for the outrageous pricing strategy of the Apple Watch. No one wants to talk about the fact that the ordering process was buggered up. I could list a half dozen more horrible things they have done lately, but in short, Apple is making a lot of mistakes and heading off in new directions that go against almost everything they stand (stood) for, but the tech press reaction seems to be just ... "cool!" There's not only no criticism from the tech press, there's a seeming complicity. What happened to the real journalists? To me, this article reads like, "Here's another limitation of the Apple Watch, but it's a *good* thing." The implication being that Apple can do no wrong, and that we should just accept whatever lashings they give us.
  • Everyone should really stop making judgments and having any emotional investment into broad predictive statements with zero basis in reality. I see this over and over and over with Apple... An extreme example is the comments I once saw of some fool bashing Apple for failing to get a sapphire crystal screen on the iPhone 6. Apple never said the iPhone 6 would have one, never even hinted at it, it was complete web based speculation fueled by tech bloggers and vloggers like MKBHD. Apple takes its time to do things right, always had, always will. Sometimes that means they are late to market with some features because they were focused on other things, and sometimes in means they are first if they innovated it before anyone else (like Touch ID, yes Atrix had fingerprint reading but it was crap swipe, so don't start). The iPhone didn't have wallpapers at first, now it does. To do a nice watch face properly, I'd expect Apple would release an API for that with tools in the SDK, and that's still some time off.
  • And let's not forget that it is perfectly okay not to like every single thing that Apple does-and it doesn't need to become a rant, it can just be a statement of dislike, it's okay. Really. As for the watch face, I think it will eventually open up somewhere down the road, but whether it does or not will not have much effect, one way or the other, on whether I decide to purchase an Apple Watch.
  • This. It's become pointless to read reviews or analysis of Apple products because they follow the same formula. The reviewer lists all the great new features, spins the controversial features into positives, and hedges by throwing 1 or 2 "wish list" items at the end. I personally think this is bad for readership, but hey--I don't know the first thing about blogging. These sites are all immensely popular, so they must be doing something right.
  • And here you are!
  • 1) The Apple Watch got both positive and mixed reviews. Don't see how the press is "complicit" in your conspiracy theory. 2) Dunno how the pricing is "outrageous". An iPhone starts at $649, an iPad at $499, a Watch at $349. Actually it might be the cheapest new Apple product ever. The iPod only played music and it was like $500+ in today's money. 3) Apple is going for certain standards regarding UI, aesthetics, battery life, and performance. Neither devs nor consumers have widely gotten their hands on the Watch hardware, Complications, Glances, etc. The full SDK isn't out yet and you want custom faces? (Arguably the "app" used most by the user)
  • Did you read the article? Renee addresses your point when he explained why we didn't see an App Store on the first generation iPhone. You can customize the shit out of your Watch with various materials, colors, bands and built in Watch faces and complications. You're getting worked up over custom watch faces on a product not even shipping yet? Give me a break.
  • Gazoobee, you certainly have an unreal view of your own posting history, which tends to be overwhelmingly negative.
  • The Gazoobee doth protest too much, methinks. You have been negative and almost dismissive in far too many posts lately. No one (almost no one) has an AW in hand to really judge this...
  • I think you have a very different perception of what your comment history looks like then the rest of us. Everyday when I get on here all I ever see in the comments you post on literally almost EVERY article that is posted is negative. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm completely fine with using what Apple has provided--for now. I have no doubt there will be more faces in the not too distant future.
  • On a regular watch you can't change or customise? So there's already much more choice than what a standard watch wearer is used to... Also I owned a pebble and in fairness 99% of the "custom" faces were totally rubbish and made the watch look awful. Only a handful were actually decent enough to keep in the memory and use regularly. I had to wade through a sea of trash to find the odd gem and I'm not up for that again. I'm happy with the current stance Sent from the iMore App
  • "On a regular watch you can't change or customise? So there's already much more choice than what a standard watch wearer is used to..." That, Sir, is very true. . . . We should be thankful we have "some" amount of customization.
  • "Some" amount in terms of the dozen or so faces, but then many of those have a lot more customization within themselves. If you add it all up, there's a huge variety of customization on watch faces with the Apple Watch, and I'd rather have that granular control of what I'm presented when the screen lights up, then have a larger selection of canned faces others have made. I'm sure in time there will be more base faces for the Apple Watch, and to think there won't be seems pretty shortsighted.
  • The pebble probably isn't the best watch for custom faces. The only good ones were more for function than design. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • I would like to someday customize but I am in no hurry. I would love to change it depending on what I am doing. Lets say I am going to see Avengers 2 I would love to change the watch to match that like an Iron Man theme. When I go to Disneyland I am set there for sure. Maybe just allow pictures so that will not change the battery life. Like the Superman pic above or something like that.
  • This whole thing is another example of people blowing up over nothing. I am completely fine with the watch faces as they are now. Especially knowing that more will surely follow through software updates. Be it from Apple itself or eventually opening up to custom watch faces. However it is definitely too much to expect a first gen product to do EVERYTHING right from jump. It's unrealistic. Just like custom keyboards with iOS 8, third party watch faces might come eventually, but I understand that won't be possible right now. Be it from hardware, software, or battery limitations, I'm fine with that. The watch still offers enough to keep me interested as is. And I say this hoping that these features will come sooner rather than later.
  • I don't now for certain, but I'm willing to bet that Apple is going to optimise the code in the Apple Watch OS over time (once the product is out the door) so that the battery performances are going to improve slightly over time with the first few software updates. Maybe then Apple will be more comfortable with 3rd party native apps and watch faces.
  • Plausible. Every design/interface decision they've made recently seems to have had battery life in mind. Optimizing the SDK to a level where submitted apps are auto-compiled with low-power consumption flags above all else would be one of their goals. Once those guidelines are in place and enforced, they might open up a few more options for devs.
  • I agree with you, Rene. While it would be cool to have the customization option, it is quite low on my priorities list for a smartwatch. I do wish, though, that Apple would have at least kept the Photos face, with an alert stating something like, "This watch face may cause additional battery drain. Continue?" I, too, would like a Superman face (even if it was just an outlined "S" logo), or a Seahawks logo to display during the season.
  • Can you modify the solar watch face? I tried in the store and couldn't get it into the customization mode. I really like that face and wanted to add a couple of complications like weather and activity and was surprised that I couldn't. I'm not upset about it but it would be nice to have a clear separation between the faces that are customizable and the ones that aren't.
  • I hope they open up complications. I view them anagolous to the ios dock icons in that they are shortcuts to your most commonly used apps. It would be neat to replace stock complications, like weather, with a third party ones, like dark sky, which when tapped on takes us directly to the app. So many ideas for useful complications!
  • They should at least allow us to use our own photo as background for the watchface - how risky could that be (like a college logo behind the chronograph)?
  • I covered that in the article. They did in the prototypes. There was a Photo watch face. They removed it in the final shipping version. Sent from the iMore App
  • I think people misunderstand what Apple Watch faces really do. It's NOT the same as slapping a wallpaper behind the hands. They have a bajillion Complications (selected via touch, Force Touch, and Crown), they animate as they display time, they animate as the user performs customizations, and the way they light up has a big impact on battery life. And after you customize it, you can save it as a preset. Like most of us, I do want custom faces eventually. But for the time being, I'm happy to let Apple establish strict guidelines and best practices. If anyone thinks otherwise, I encourage you to try customizing an Apple Watch face see for yourself. Just get that Star Wars face done in time for December!!
  • I'm actually fine with Apple locking down watch faces for the time being. I'm looking for an overall smooth experience and if having a custom picture hinders that, I'm fine with Apple gives me. Sent from the iMore App
  • This a huge, big, monster, NON issue. Next!
  • Hunt for Red October! Yes!!!!
  • "Native code on the watch, at the very least, would seem to be a prerequisite for custom watch faces." The rest of the article is well thought out, but this particular statement has no logical basis. If Apple's watchface code can run from the iPhone, an SDK could allow custom watchfaces to be similarly run from the iPhone.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gj96D54bb0U With WatchOS 2 there is a little more room for customization. We are currently exploring some new faces. Would be thrilled to hear what you think. You can find them here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/applewatchfaces/