Third-party Watch Faces For Apple Watch: About Damn Time Or A Can Of Worms?

Third-party Watch Faces For Apple Watch: About Damn Time Or A Can Of Worms?

After I published an article about wishes and proposals for watchOS 5 the most talked about aspect were third-party watch faces. Some couldn‘t get them soon enough others didn‘t see a need for them.  

My own position in this discussion is somewhere in the middle. Yes, I would like and even pay for very good watch faces for the Apple Watch. But I also see the risks of opening up the most important part of the watch to other companies or even users. Let me explain.

The watch face isn‘t called that for no reason. It‘s the face of the watch. It‘s the first thing you see and the one thing you see every time you look at your watch. One wrong detail on the watch face can ruin the look of the whole watch.   

No wonder Apple is very cautious with letting others change such fundamental elements of their products. It‘s the same with the iPhone by the way. Developers may design app symbols (even ugly ones). But they can‘t change the home screen, do widgets or launchers like on Android phones.   

But not everyone is as protective as Apple. In fact, other smartwatch systems like Android Wear and Tizen do allow third-party watch faces and even allow users to create their own designs. 

I once asked Jean-Claude Biver, the legendary Swiss watch manager who made James Bond wear Omega and is now responsible for brands like TAG Heuer, Hublot or Zenith, if he was afraid of people creating horrible watch faces for his smartwatches. His answer: „Yes. But we have to give the customer this freedom. Every customer wants to identify himself with his or her watch. Plus, we can‘t forbid it anyway.“

I asked David Singleton, the former boss of Android Wear the very same question. His answer: „When you buy a beautiful watch, you obviously like the design. That's why people will choose watch faces that match the design of the watch.“

Apple obviously can and does forbid third-party watch faces. One of the perks of owning hardware and software. 

But why? Ugly watch faces are only one of the risks of letting users design their own watch faces. The other risk is copyright complaints. A topic Apple should be familiar with. In the early days, the app stores of Android Wear and Tizen were full of replica/counterfeit watch faces. Some even used brand names like Rolex, Omega or Patek.   

Nowadays you have to dig deeper to find such watch faces. But they are still around. 

These are just some of the easiest to spot offenders. But if you know your way around watches you can easily find digital watch faces that resemble their mechanical counterparts a little to close.  

Just for fun and illustration, I turned one of my all-time favorite watches, the Omega Seamaster 300 from 1957, into a digital watch face. All it took me was my iPad, Pixelmator, Affinity and a few minutes over lunch break. 


Obviously, it's not a real watch face. Just a photo in the photo app on the watch. But it looks rather convincing.

Lawyers would have a field day if something like this turned up in Apple's app store.

But let’s assume for argument's sake that Apple does allow third-party watch faces. That immediately leads to the following question: How does Apple make sure there aren‘t any ugly or even stolen designs like in my example? They could of course school app reviewers on all the tiny watch design details and nuances.

I doubt that would get the job done in any consistent, objective and fair manner. The safest option would be to send every watch face to the legal department and most important through Jony Ive's design department. It doesn‘t take an Apple Genius to know how unrealistic that is.

Therefore I wouldn‘t expect Apple to broadly open the watch face to developers or even users anytime soon if ever. It‘s far more realistic to expect a few new designs from Apple with every new version of watchOS and maybe other partnerships like the ones with Nike and Hermès.

But if you really want new watch faces right now I suggest you start experimenting with the kaleidoscope watch face. I have many different versions of it. Nearly one for every occasion and every watch band. All you need is the right photo as I explained in my review of the latest Apple Watch. Use photos and drawings with a lot of black and bold colors.

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