The Apple Watch Still Needs Its App Store

23 October 2018

In 2008, Apple opened — and thoroughly revolutionized — the iPhone platform with the App Store. Today, this is unequivocally regarded as a good move. The App Store brought a new form of commerce, spawned a global multi-billion-dollar industry, gave new opportunities to customers, created jobs for developers, and made everyone involved a boatload of cash.

Ten years later, though, Apple doesn’t seem to remember whether the App Store was a good idea after all. This unfounded uncertainty can be seen clearly in the Apple Watch.

In 2015, when the Watch first shipped, it supported apps. Cool. That’s not the problem we’re discussing. The problem was that Apple was content to think apps were the only level of customization the Watch needed. The device was — and still is — essentially treated as a miniaturized iPhone, with apps being the major customizable aspects. Third-party complications still have to fit into Apple’s box.

Apple calls the Watch its most personal device ever. What a recent surge of enthusiasm — led by Marco Arment and Steve Troughton-Smith — has been all about is simple: this personal device is missing personalization in the most important, most powerful, most obvious way possible.

Broadly, each of Apple’s operating systems is about something. Users have proven that these ideas aren’t set in stone, but they hold true for most. macOS is about power. iOS is about convenience. And watchOS is about efficiency. Apple Watch is designed to take advantage of the fractions of seconds during which you’re looking at it. Interestingly enough, the Watch revolves around time.

The main way we interact with our iPhones and iPads is through apps; the home screen, more broadly, is the point of contact. Allowing custom iOS apps makes sense because with them, users can change the core things they do on iOS. Again, this is because on iPhones and iPads, we do things from the home screen.

But it’s not the same with the Apple Watch. The watch face, rather than the home screen, is the key point of interaction with the device. What you can get done in a quick wrist-flick is determined by how the information on the watch face is organized. Remember, watchOS is about doing things as efficiently as possible — and if you have a crummy watch face, you lose efficiency.

This conversation wouldn’t be happening if the faces included with the Apple Watch were efficient enough. But they’re not. The blog post from Marco Arment that rekindled this controversy goes in-depth about current Watch faces’ flaws as far as readability and ease of use. Beyond just that, though, Apple’s faces are a one-size-fits-all deal: even if they’re designed well, they’re not designed well for everyone.

Sometimes first-party options are poorly designed or aren’t good enough for all users. iOS is just better with custom apps. It’s that simple.

watchOS is similar — but while the iPhone needed apps, the Watch needs something more. For an upheaval akin to the App Store to occur on the Apple Watch, the device’s key interaction point needs to be opened up, just as the iPhone’s was. And that brings us to what everyone has been begging Apple to allow since the inception of the device: third-party watch faces.

The exact reasoning that supported the original App Store also supports custom faces. There are three main ways the App Store benefited everyone involved: it improved the user experience, it paved the way for an influx of developer jobs, and it made Apple a ton of money. So let’s examine these three things and see how they also relate to the Watch.

First, third-party apps improve the user experience on Apple devices. So far, the developer community — using Steve Troughton-Smith’s awesomely hacky app-based custom watch faces — has been focusing on aesthetically pleasing designs that are already a step ahead of what Apple offers. But think about what else could happen: if Apple releases a watch face API, people will be able to make even more interesting stuff. Imagine an Evernote watch face. Or a Twitter watch face. Or a calendar-based watch face. Not to sound cliché, but the possibilities are endless.

If third-party faces get official support from Apple, options available to users will become even more robust and powerful. The simple truth is that many custom faces will be better than the current ones. Sure, people will make trashy ones, but it’s a small price to pay for the good faces that people will actually use. Owning an Apple Watch will be a better value proposition.

Second, the App Store began a developer revolution. It’s become clear that this is precisely what would happen if third-party watch faces were supported. Developers are already interested in unofficial watch faces shared via GitHub rather than an actual store — they sure as heck will want to make even better faces they can give to users through legitimate channels.

Lots of major developers have been dropping out of the Watch’s App Store; this would send them running back. Uluroo would bet money that there were some ideas for Apple Watch experiences that got scrapped because they made more sense as a watch face than as an app.

The Apple Watch is not as powerful a development platform as it could be because the thing users see when they look at the device is not the home screen. It’s the watch face. That’s what developers want to customize. An open, developer-friendly watch face is key to sparking another App Store-level frenzy. And if you’re a heartless cynic like Uluroo can be sometimes, keep in mind that there’s a lot of money involved here too. Maybe, as Christina Warren has suggested, watch faces are available as in-app purchases. Users will undoubtedly pay money for them.

Finally, the App Store didn’t just help users and developers. It helped Apple as well. Apple takes a thirty percent cut of App Store revenue, and it would obviously do the same for watch face sales. In addition, third-party faces are another feature Apple could use as a selling point.

This is where we reach a major objection: Apple probably doesn’t want third-party watch faces screwing up its brand perception. Right now, it controls the collective aesthetic of the Watch and can keep things clean and consistent, but who knows what trash developers will unleash upon the world. If you use a non-Apple face, someone might see it and get the wrong impression of the product.

The App Store is the answer to this objection. Ten years ago, Apple could have kept a hold on the aesthetics of the iPhone and left the idea of an app store alone. But it understood that the value you get from custom apps far outweighs any negative impact they have. The same goes for watch faces.

Sure, there will be some terrible watch faces. Sure, let’s even grant for the sake of argument that those bad ones will hurt the Apple Watch’s brand (which Uluroo finds to be a silly assumption). But if we think bad faces will have negative consequences, it makes sense that, conversely, the good faces will have a positive impact on the brand. And users are more likely to use good faces than bad faces.

Ultimately, the points people make against custom Apple Watch faces are also points against the App Store, arguably the most successful marketplace of this century. If you believe that the App Store was a good idea, you shouldn’t attack third-party faces with arguments that also attack third-party apps.

Apple is also guilty of this hypocrisy. It created an industry out of thin air and then restricted its success in a new product category. The best way to take advantage of the creativity and imagination of the developer community is to give them access to the Apple Watch’s focal point: the face.

Custom-made Apple Watch faces are a way to unleash a new era for development on the Watch. They will be a huge source of cash, as the App Store has proven over the past ten years. They will vastly improve the user experience, as those toying with the current app-based framework have proven in the past weeks.

The past decade has shown that custom faces have massive potential. If Apple believes in its developer community, if it believes in its users’ judgment, if it believes in the App Store, if it believes in itself — it’s time to open up the Apple Watch. To do anything less is to deny it a chance at an iPhone-sized revolution.