Apple Watch users have wanted third-party dials since the Apple Watch was introduced in 2015, and developers have wanted to create custom watch surfaces for just as long. But despite users’, developers’ and well-known podcasters’ prayers, they are unlikely to come.
As an Apple software engineer, I worked on the first two releases of watchOS, so I’m familiar with many of Apple Watch’s internal considerations. Although I have no inside information about current versions of watchOS and Apple Watch hardware, there are at least four reasons to believe that Apple will not support third-party dials anytime soon.
Cause # 1: Battery life
The main reason why Apple does not allow third-party dials is battery life. On the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6, the dial appears almost constantly. It is important that the code that drives the dial uses as little power as possible. Apple engineers go to great lengths to ensure that the dial code is power efficient.
These efforts go far beyond simple tricks such as hiding second hand when the face is muted, since animation takes more power than a static screen. Apple engineers have intimate knowledge of how watchOS displays graphics and how the Apple Watch GPU works, and for better or worse, this information is proprietary. They know which graphics techniques use the least power. Their animation techniques are the most energy efficient. They have access to private graphics APIs that are not available to third-party developers. And they have internal test and measurement tools that the company does not provide to third-party developers.
The Apple Watch does not accidentally achieve battery life all day long. Apple engineers spend thousands of hours fine-tuning the code to be energy efficient. Every night, Apple̵
The daily building is also loaded on a stand with Apple Watches in the power test lab. They go through a set of scripts that simulate normal use to see how long the batteries last. The results are published on an internal web dashboard that tracks the battery life of each watchOS building. If battery life decreases, engineers are told to find out why and fix it. Battery life is an obsession with the Apple Watch team.
No matter how skilled or diligent they may be, third-party developers simply do not want the internal graphics knowledge, the private API access or the testing tools to be as careful with the battery life as Apple requires. If Apple were to open the development of the dial to third-party developers right now, the battery life would almost certainly be reduced, which would provide a worse Apple Watch experience for users.
Cause # 2: Buggy code
The WatchOS code that drives the dial runs 24 hours a day, for several months. It must be as completely flawless as possible. It is unacceptable to look at your watch and find your face has frozen, crashed or has a visible defect. The Apple Watch team tries a lot on the watch code. These engineers run automated tests, manual tests, and recruit thousands of Apple employees to use beta copies of watchOS and report any issues.
During the years I worked at Apple, I developed a deep respect for Apple’s Software Quality Assurance (SQA) engineers. They do a tremendous job. When software is shipped incorrectly, it’s usually not because SQA did not report a problem, but because the schedule did not allow time to track it down and fix it (see “How to report bugs to Apple for resolution,” June 17, 2020) .
Only the largest third-party developers, such as Microsoft and Google, have similar test resources. Smaller developers may not be able to guarantee the quality required for the dial code. And even if they could, it would not be economically feasible for them to spend so much time testing dials, which would quickly become an item in the App Store. Apple also does not want to take on the level of testing itself as part of allowing third-party dials in the App Store.
Reason # 3: Apple Photo
It is an understatement to say that Apple is very image-conscious. Apple possesses every detail of its public persona, from the Mac Desktop background to iPhone colors, and even extends to the exact shade of wood in Apple store desks. Steve Jobs researched dozens of shades of white cables before choosing the special color shade in the iconic iPod and iPhone earbuds.
The dial is the public façade of the Apple Watch. This is what everyone sees when they spot someone wearing an Apple Watch. It must be beautiful, modern and polished.
There are certainly some third-party developers who make beautiful apps. However, when you go through the App Store, you will find many apps where the design is uninspiring and many more that are downright ugly.
Apple does not want the Apple Watch to have a gaudy, shaky or outright dissonant face, even if that is what you might want. Apple also does not want to decide which dials are stylish enough to appear on the watch. Apple thinks its own designers do a great job of creating a wide variety of highly customizable faces, and it adds more faces with each watchOS update.
Reason # 3: Copyright Concerns
If there’s a department in Apple that you do not mess with, it’s Apple Legal. Apple does not want to waste time and money fighting copyright infringement lawsuits. Many classic dials, such as the Hermès face that Apple licenses for the Apple Watch Hermès, are copyrighted. Vintage faces were also designed before smartwatches existed, so licensing such faces for digital use means negotiating with a copyright owner who may not even understand the issues involved in digital licensing. Worse, the App Store supports dozens of countries, and the copyright owner may be different in each country. It’s a legal nightmare.
Apple is all too familiar with the dial. Several years before the Apple Watch came into existence, the company had to pay the Swiss Federal Rail Service $ 21 million for a license after “customizing” its iconic Mondaine dial for iOS 6.
Apple may require the developer to certify that they had a legal right to sell each dial. But the company has no easy way to verify that the developer is telling the truth, and Apple will inevitably be sued in any copyright infringement lawsuit because Apple has deep pockets.
When Apple originally launched the iTunes Music Store, it took a small army of lawyers to acquire legal rights to sell all the songs, in all the countries Apple operated in. One reason why it took so long for Apple Music to provide lyrics, is that written lyrics are licensed separately from the music.
Complications to the rescue?
Apple believes that it has a feature that will satisfy users’ desire to customize the dials: third-party complications. The concept complication comes from the world of mechanical clocks, where it refers to additional information displayed in addition to time. Common mechanical clock complications include date, day of the week, and time in a different time zone.
Apple Watch’s complications allow a third-party app to display additional information – usually a small amount of text and graphics – on one of Apple’s dials. watchOS provides several different forms and styles of complications, and most dials can show several different complications.
What the complications do not show is the time – it is reserved for the dial. A popular Apple Watch complication is the weather showing the temperature and a small icon for current conditions.
Complications are part of an app, but they have special limitations. The complication code collects data, as a weather forecast for the day, and sends it to watchOS in a static data structure with details of when to display each data record. watchOS displays one data entry at a time, and updates the screen over time until it’s time for the complication of loading more data. The system is ideal for predictable, slowly changing data, such as weather, seawater or the lunar phase. It does not work well for data that needs to be continuously updated, such as stock prices.
Apple designed third-party complications in this way to save battery life. The complication code runs for only a few seconds, several times an hour. That way, it can not absorb too much power. Most of the time, watchOS only shows the complication using static data. It usually works well, but it limits what can be well represented in a complication.
watchOS 7 expands customization
With watchOS 7, you can see how much Apple will respond to the desire for third-party dials without going so far. Changes include multiple complications from the same app, sharing dials and quite a few new faces.
Allowing multiple complications from the same app in a single dial may sound relatively small, but it gives the apps much more flexibility, presenting more data across multiple complications, and allowing users to sort out the complications they want.
Dividing dials can also seem impressive, but users spend a lot of time customizing dials, including the complications. It can take a bit of effort to get things just like that, and if you show your custom dial to a friend, you can now share it with them easily.
Finally, Apple added seven new watches to watchOS 7, much like it does with each new watchOS release. The new faces this time include Artist, Chronograph Pro, Count Up, GMT, Memoji, Stripes and Typograph. As you can see, Artist, Memoji and Typograph are relatively bare bones, but the rest of them offer many complication tracks and other customization options.
These new features allow users to make their watches more personal than ever before. I’m sure Apple also has plans for additional customization options for future versions of watchOS. But third-party dials are probably not on the horizon.