Apple’s Future for Custom Watch Faces

John Gruber regarding custom watch faces on Apple Watch:

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.

While I agree that Apple won’t ever allow developers to build traditional third-party watch faces (ones that live in the native Watch app), I do think there’s a few things Apple will do to practically eliminate this concern from prospective buyers without giving developers the keys to the castle.

Apple could resurrect the Photos and Timelapse watch faces that they showed off at the unveiling last September. This would give users the option to customize the look of the watch face without giving developers the ability to build custom ones from scratch. I suspect Apple pulled these faces from the initial release because a bright photo on your watch face yielded too poor of battery life — once Apple is able to improve battery life, these watch faces will return.

Another option would be to give developers a way to build complications for watch faces. This would let users put data from the apps they care about most right on the watch face — Dark Sky could tell you whether it’s going to rain in the next hour, a website analytics service could tell you how many page views your site has for the day, Mint could tell you your current bank balance, and so on. These third-party complications would be used just as Apple uses them — for bite-sized pieces of information that can be displayed in an even more compact space than glances. Apple would likely enforce strict rules about how much information developers are able to display in their complications and the Watch’s OS itself (rather than the third-party app) would poll the user’s iPhone periodically (and infrequently) to update the data in order to maintain reasonable battery life.

The final option is for Apple to let users choose what application they want to be the default app when they look at their wrist. This wouldn’t give developers the ability to build custom watch faces though, Apple could use the old “duplicates existing functionality” excuse to keep that at bay. But, it would give users control over what a watch is to them — not in terms of design but in terms of functionality. If the Apple Watch is more of a dashboard to my life than it is a timepiece than I think Apple will allow it eventually. For many users, I suspect, the ability to tell the time by lifting their wrist is not as important as knowing how much oxygen is left in their iPhone-connected tank, the status of their connected piece of industrial equipment in a factory setting, what users most recently subscribed to your Twitch channel while live streaming, or whatever it is they happen to find most essential to them.

The photography-based watch faces and third-party complications are what I’d bet to come first among the three options listed above. I would guess that they won’t be in next year’s model, though. I think the next Apple Watch will focus more on miniaturization (decreasing thickness) than new features and will probably have about the same battery life as the one shipping to customers at the end of this week. Apple Watch 3 is the model I’d most likely bet on to feature photo-based watch faces and third-party complications.

As for changing the default app that displays when you lift your wrist, it’s the least likely of the bunch to actually happen. But, I think there’s enough people out there that want it to encourage Apple to allow it. If Apple were to add this as a feature I wouldn’t expect it to happen for several years, likely no earlier than Apple Watch 4. But, if Apple truly believes they’re building their “most personal device yet” then I think it would be wise to give users the capability to personalize it to the furthest extent possible — while still maintaining the device’s curated atmosphere, of course.