Charged Up: Forget apps, it's time for watch faces to shine

I'm looking for a complication

I really like smartwatch faces — there, I said it. And around a year ago, I couldn't care less what was showing on the primary screen of my Apple Watch or Wear smartwatch; I was all about finding ways to limit the time I spent on my smartphone through my smartwatch's standalone apps or music streaming. But the times are a-changing, and I'm not the only one emphasising the watch face.

This week, a strong hint was uncovered in watchOS that the Apple Watch will soon feature third-party watch faces, while Garmin also announced that its Connect IQ 3.0 platform and the watch faces that lie within will receive an upgrade. Add to this the arsenal of bespoke options provided by each fashion brand within the Wear circle, as well as Fitbit's ever-growing Clock Faces, and it appears the industry's biggest names are waking up to the fact that people are taking the time to play around with watch faces.

Read next: The best Apple Watch faces

And it comes back, really, to how we're spending time with our smartwatches. While we're seeing an undoubted shift towards more well thought out faces, this also means that things like apps are becoming less important. Instagram, for example, recently joined some other high-profile apps, including Google Maps, eBay, Amazon and Slack, to drop their Apple Watch apps.

It's never good to see big names exit the space (even if it does turn out to only be temporary), but it's also fair to point out that these apps, particularly a visual-based experience like Instagram, perhaps aren't best suited to the wrist. And if they do fall into that category, then there's better ways to make them more in tuned with the smaller screen and capabilities of a watch.

If we're recklessly speculating, the reason Instagram decided not to upgrade its Watch equivalent is likely because of a lack of user interaction — it probably wasn't worth the hassle in its current form. And using the same logic, it's likely the reason why we're seeing more companies stock up their watch face libraries.

Charged Up: Watch faces have never been more important to the smartwatch experience

Apple, in fairness, was on board this wagon early, partnering with Disney and letting users put their own photos as the main screen. But even the folks in Cupertino have kept things ticking along with useful complications, kaleidoscope faces and colour customisation. Since then, we've also seen platforms like Facer make high quality Wear faces more accessible, while Fitbit reached out to developers and flooded their own face store with everything from stat-heavy looks to a Shia Labeouf watch face - seriously, that's a thing. (Speaking of Fitbit, Pebble - which it now owns - always knew that watch faces were just as popular, if not more so, than smartwatch apps).

Fossil Group too has spent a lot of time talking about customisation. Michael Kors Access watches let you set custom designs or Instagram pictures as your watch face background and the Kate Spade Scallop not only gives you granular control over dials and indixes but also can suggest a watch face based on the colour palette of your outfit and accessories.

It's something we've spoken about at Wareable HQ and through our weekly What I'm Wearing feature. We've been dedicating far more time sifting through face combinations we like for different occasions — whether it's everyday use, exercising, formal events — than any other area of the smartwatch. There's so much choice now, it's starting to resemble the customisation and time you can give to picking out different straps for a specific look.

So, what comes next? Well, as we mentioned, things look set to go up another notch with Apple purportedly opening up watch faces to third parties. This isn't yet confirmed, but it would be a natural next step and something we could see announced as early as WWDC in June. And just like we saw with its app collection, you can bet hoards of developers will be on hand to fill out the Apple catalogue, if it does makes the move.

As for Garmin's watch face plans, well, they're just as intriguing. Wareable editor Michael Sawh has banged on plenty about how the Connect IQ platform has been steadily improving on this front (he even sported a Christmas tree watch face back in December), and through IQ 3.0 we should see more customisation with regard to data fields, faces and apps — particularly through the more smartwatch-y Garmin devices, like the Vivoactive 3. Who needs to open up a third party app when a well thought out complication does the job?

Of course, it's tough to gauge just how important watch faces are to influencing people's decision to buy one smartwatch over another, but these recent moves, as well as the sales we've seen from some of Fossil Group's fashion options, would suggest that design, look and customisation are as important as ever to the overall package. And that importance is only set to continue trending upwards.

Now, excuse me, I'm off to download that Shia Labeouf face for my Fitbit Versa.


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