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Customizing a smartwatch is as underwhelming as using one

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Not enough options in the Moto Maker leave the Moto 360 feeling impersonal

What do Motorola and Nike have in common? They both offer a wonderfully intricate design-your-own service that lets shoppers customize their next smartphone or sneakers to their personal tastes. The Moto Maker is approaching its two-year anniversary, and this month it adds Motorola’s smartwatch, the Moto 360, to its roster of customizable devices.

One thing Motorola understood right from the start with the Moto 360 was that people buy and wear expensive watches not for how they work, but for how they look and what they represent. Engineering can sometimes be intriguing, but it's of secondary importance. Even ultra-precise movements and self-winding mechanisms are at their most enticing when the watch includes a window to show them off. The Moto 360 is a smartwatch designed with the implicit recognition that a watch is a piece of attire; it's clothing for your wrist in the same way that a pair of Nike shoes is clothing for your feet.

People buy and wear expensive watches not for how they work, but for how they look

With this commonality in mind, and having spent many hours perfecting my ideal pair of Air Maxes at the Nike ID store, I was really quite excited by the prospect of specifying my own Moto 360 design. I'd used the watch previously, so it wasn't so much the novelty of it that thrilled me as it was the opportunity to create something truly bespoke.

The Vlad watch.

Alas, my eagerness was misplaced. The awesome granularity and variety of Moto Maker and Nike ID personalization options are starkly missing when you decide to mess around with the Moto 360. There are a couple of leather and metal strap options, a choice of three shades for the watch's case, and that's it. Motorola is clearly aware of how anaemic this selection is and has augmented it with a choice of watch faces as well. Yes, the same exact choice you'll be able to make as soon as you turn the watch on anyway.

Like the experience of the smartwatch itself, the act of customizing a Moto 360 is promising at first but ultimately disappointing. A great deal of the reward of personalizing something is in the actual process: Rolls-Royce buyers, for example, delight in making the most minuscule of choices and alterations for their new cars. Every time I moot the possibility of buying a new Moto handset, I go to Moto Maker and tinker with all the options to see what it would look like in the me configuration. The smartwatch section of that store is still severely lacking.

Apple's Jony Ive would tell you that offering a litany of options is "abdicating your responsibility as a designer," whereas Motorola's entire brand message is expressed in the #ChooseChoice hashtag. There's great irony, therefore, in the fact that Apple will soon have a bewildering array of color, material, and even size options while Motorola keeps itself limited to a few different straps and colors. Setting aside their internal contradictions, though, the two American companies are approaching the smartwatch market in a strikingly similar way: Apple is avoiding the very word "smartwatch," while Motorola is promoting its Android Wear device as an expression of the user's style.

moto 360

Motorola promises choice, but doesn't deliver enough of it

I'm inclined to believe that selling people on the watch first and the smart augmentations second is the right way to go. We're over a decade into the smartphone era, and people still talk about their cell, their phone, or their mobile rather than their smartphone. Smartwatches have to make that same leap in the common consciousness: from extremely techy wrist-worn devices to just another category of watches. Moto Maker is a great start along that route, offering the same frisson of excitement that one might feel when ordering a tailor-made suit. But for that excitement to last, Moto will have to massively expand the variety and diversity of choices available.

Motorola already has all the pieces in place to be the leader when it comes to customizable personal electronics. The Moto Maker tool is quick and easy to use, ordering is painless, and a user-friendly tracking service keeps you informed as your 360 makes its way over from Shenzhen, China. The only inadequate thing, at least for now, is Motorola's big promise of choice. But give it time. The future of the smartwatch has always been closely modeled after the present of the smartphone, and the Moto 360's successor should be a lot closer in its personalization options to the Moto X than the 360.

Verge Video archive: The Moto 360 is how a smartwatch should look (2014)