Posted by David Price 07 May 2015
Why Apple's fear of customisation is a problem for wearable tech
Regular readers of this site - and of Macworld.co.uk - will be familiar with one of our pet complaints: that you can't delete Apple's pre-installed apps from your iPhone or iPad. Newsstand, Game Centre, Tips, Stocks: however annoying you find them, however little they've done to improve your life, you're stuck with them*.
Annoying this might be, but it's hardly the end of the world; and for all the articles we write imploring Apple to change its policy on pre-installed, undeletable apps, we've coped with the situation without too much trouble. The iPhone, after all, is (like all smartphones) blessed with multiple Home screens and a simple folder system, both of which make it relatively easy for neat-freaks like myself to hide unwanted icons well out of sight. The apps are still using up storage space, of course, but not all that much.
The Apple Watch, however, is a different kettle of fish.
I finally had my turn on Macworld's office Apple Watch this week, and therefore came late to the realisation that not only had Apple made the bizarre decision to crowbar its much-derided, ultra-niche Stocks apps on to the device's default Home screen - you don't want to check share prices on the bus? What are you, some kind of socialist? - but it had also declined to allow users to delete or even hide it.
The Apple Watch doesn't have multiple Home screens or folders, and its screen (as you're likely to have noticed) is quite small. Even the default mosaic of microscopic app icons feels cramped, and that's before you start adding your own - and the range of apps you're likely to want on your watch is only going to increase as more and more developers get to grips with the new format. Having a compulsory extra icon on there, even if it's exiled to the edge and barely visible, feels like an imposition. In its own small way it makes the device just that tiny bit less user-friendly. It makes the device feel less about what I want to do and more about what someone at Apple thinks I should be doing.
The intimacy of wearables
Thinking about this, and about the seemingly irrational degree to which Stocks' presence irritated me, led to more general thoughts: about the differences between portable and wearable tech, and the differing importance of customisation options to each.
Apple's philosophy has always been that it knows best, and it makes certain choices for the user in order to ensure the best possible experience. It's a patronising-sounding approach when put that like, for sure, but one that has reaped dividends in user satisfaction and loyalty. Everyone thinks they want freedom of choice, but in practice it rarely hurts to have some decisions made for you*.
But the Apple Watch, unlike all previous Apple products, is something that you wear rather than something you use. It's personal, and intimate, and it would be natural to assume that owners of such a device would want it to reflect their personality. Why, after all, would anyone buy the Apple Watch Edition, if not to make a statement about their taste and status?
Given the total novelty of this approach for both Apple and the tech industry in general, it has to be said that Tim Cook and his team have done a solid job marketing this blend of technology and fashion - certainly a stronger job that you can imagine being performed by any of the company's big rivals. Quite aside from the deft courting of celebrities and fashion opinion formers, Apple has been clever about (if you'll forgive the phrase) telling a different story about each of the three main types of Apple Watch: constructing a different personality and lifestyle around each. (It tried something similar with the youth-targeted iPhone 5c, but struggled to get beyond the perception of simply a bargain-basement iPhone 5s.)
Yet in the sense of user customisation, the control freaks at Cupertino continue to play by the old rules, and I think it's a mistake. If you're going to wear a device and have it on your body at all times, you're going to be that much more demanding about it behaving exactly as you want. And the very least we should be able to expect is to choose the apps that appear on our Apple Watches.
I understand why this isn't going to happen, of course. There are plenty of factors at play here: the selfishly commercial (wanting to promote Apple-built apps over third-party alternatives) and the admirably perfectionist (putting in exhaustive work to establish the ideal user experience, then making this mandatory). Apple also likes to turn customers into evangelists, and having the Ive-masterminded showroom experience on display in every one of its products is part of this. (See also the somewhat dictatorial approach to which colours of strap are allowed to be sold with which watch bodies.)
As usual balance is key: the last thing I'd advocate is the throwing open of the walled garden and a free invitation to everyone to tinker with the workings of their watch to their heart's content. But let's at least start by letting me delete Stocks.
* Insert topical General Election joke of your choice