When we talk about what smartwatches should do or be capable of, we often overlook the most important thing of all: they need to tell the time. The way it tells that time is often what distinguishes a dumb watch from a smart one. Whether you're staring down at an Apple Watch or the Michael Kors Access Sofie, you have the freedom to change the look of that face staring back at you.
Apple, Samsung and Google often serve us up a mixed bag of faces out of the box, but venture into their respective app stores and you're bound to find something that's a much better fit for your shiny new connected timepiece.
Read this: Essential Android Wear tips and tricks
Strange Watch, much like Facer, wants to offer sleeker watch face alternatives for Android Wear watches; and while it's now also venturing into the world of Wear apps, watch faces are where it's making its name. The small team based out of Amsterdam are hoping to ride that new-found enthusiasm from non-tech companies that are embracing the smartwatch.
Keeping things simple
Liam Akakpo is the software engineering and design brains behind Strange Watch. Having swapped Android apps for Wear ones over the last couple of years, he finally feels that the smartwatch has come of age, having passed through that awkward growing pains stage of bulky bodies and flat tyres.
"When I first saw smartwatches I, like a lot of people, thought they were too big and clunky," Akakpo told us. "Then the second generation Moto 360 came around and I thought if I get it, I'll figure out something to do with it. In the beginning I wasn't really happy with the faces provided so I decided to just make my own."
He believes that the change in fortune lies with experimentation from Google and the likes of Fossil. "I was really surprised during the summer when all of these fashion brands got involved. I think it's really going to pick up."
What Akakpo came up with was a range of faces that were simple and stylish, but also customisable. Getting the balance of those three things will undoubtedly have had its challenges, especially as Apple and Google have opened the door to the possibility of adding complications and widgets to create richer watch face experiences.
"I like to keep my faces minimal and then go into the menu," he said. "Then there's lots of faces with dials and complications and sometimes I don't want all that information in my face all the time. Sometimes there is way too much information.
"Customisable watch faces have been there from the start, but it's the interactive faces and ones that are fashion first that people really like. It doesn't have to be magic. It doesn't have to change your life. How much does a normal watch change your life? You just use it to tell the time. That's really important to remember."
Working with Wear
For now it looks like Akakpo is sticking to building for Android Wear and he feels that there are both good and bad things about working with Google's operating system right now. "What's been good is that it is a blank canvas and you can do what you want with it," he told us. "Google's literally given us this platform where we can really build new things. The bad thing is the lack of direction. It's been kind of disappointing to see smartwatches out there and people not knowing why they should have one. That's been happening for a few years now, but it feels like that is changing."
There is also an issue with the inconsistent way hardware features are included in these watches. This sends out a confusing message of what smartwatches are capable of and makes designing faces that work seamlessly across models all that more difficult.
"You get some with GPS, some have NFC but not all of them and that gets a bit annoying," said Akakpo. "I would love to be making payments from my Fossil Q Founder watch and I can't really do that. Fossil, for instance, is so focused on fashion that they don't really pay that much attention to the stuff like that. If they take these sensors away, it's less for us to play with. The more we have to play with, the better. I think something like NFC will be a staple feature eventually but it takes time. It will get there."
Apple, Fitbit and the future
Google's biggest rival is obviously Apple. Now, Cupertino has stopped banging that stylish, fashion-first drum in favour of a more fitness-focused approach with the most recent iterations of its smartwatch. In the watch faces department, Activity and Siri-centric options continue to dominate as do its Toy Story and Disney tie-ups. Still, Akakpo feels Apple can definitely do more on this front to make it feel like a more stylish experience. "They've got really nice bands, but if they put more effort into the faces then they've really got something special there."
It's not just Apple that Google has to be wary of. Samsung's Tizen-running smartwatches continue to gain ground and then there is of course Fitbit. With the Ionic, the fitness tracker maker is making use of the software expertise it inherited from Pebble. Now if ever there was a smartwatch maker that epitomised creativity in the watch face department, it would be Pebble.
Fitbit is hoping there'll be a similar appetite for devs to create watch faces by launching its own watch face development software. Akakpo believes there's reasons to be positive about Fitbit's entry into the smartwatch space. "Fitbit seems to be a lot more focused than some of the others," he said. "They are exploring a lot of new ideas beyond fitness and there's a sense that there's a bit more of a hobbyist type of thing going on with Fitbit and that is definitely a good thing."
For Akakpo and his small team the future now is to continue exploring what smartwatches are capable of, trying out different things and hoping that smartwatches have finally lost that nerdy vibe thanks to the likes of Fossil and Movado. "We need more watches that are stylish and not only have more sensors, but the right ones. Only then will more people get their hands on them and truly appreciate that smartwatches are now great things to own."