Wednesday, 18 March 2015

On Smartwatches

Growing up in the 1980s (and having a kid's perspective at that time), it seemed inevitable that digital watches would replace analog in time. They were high tech, the LCD screens seemed so cool, and the bulky buttons looked like something out of a (1980s) sci-fi movie. And they could do so many things—alarms, running pace, stopwatches. The coolest kids (read: the biggest nerds) even had calculators!

The technology continued to advance into the 1990s, but already fashions were beginning to change. The last Casio watch I had was analog, but you could rotate a polarized bezel to reveal a digital read out, into which you could laboriously enter simple text that would scroll across the screen. Pretty impractical, but at the time it was impressive and cool. It also turned out to make a nice transition for me into the world of analog, and from then on I opted for the more "grown-up" look, and never wore a digital watch again.

In the last 20 years or so, in fact, I've hardly ever come across anyone wearing a digital watch. Partly this is due to being grown up, I'm sure, and partly due to having moved from the States to France for most of that period. But by and large, no one would argue that it is the analog watch—and the high-end mechanical analog watch especially—which dominates in advertisements and airports, and digital watches seem to have been a passing fad, leaving the watch industry more or less in the same state it was in before digital watches, once it had passed. (The low-cost, high-accuracy quartz movement, on the other hand, has been a lasting revolution—but most quartz watches today are analog, not digital.)

As anticipation builds for Apple's new foray into the "smartwatch" market, then, I can't help but get a distinct feeling of déjà vu. A recent article on the BBC ponders, "will the public be satisfied with tech-enhanced classical designs, or will people want fully-fledged apps on their wrists? If the answer is the latter, traditional watchmakers might still be caught out."

I can't help but think that people wanting read-outs of weather and Twitter on their watches are bound to be the same kind of crowd that wanted a calculator on their watch thirty years ago—and I expect this to be a fad which will follow a similar trajectory. Not that that should worry Apple—Casio sure has managed to sell millions and millions of watches, and during the period when Casio watches seemed really high tech and cutting edge, they probably did so with pretty healthy margins on their higher-end models.

Baselworld managing director Sylvie Ritter hits the nail on the head in the above article when she points out, "here we talk of timelessness, there they talk of planned obsolescence." This is the enduring competitive advantage Rolex & co. have over Apple and its imitators: I passed a shop window in Mayfair recently showcasing vintage Rolexes from the 1950s to the present day, each one commanding a high resell value for collectors. A "vintage" smartwatch probably won't even turn on in ten years (battery technology being what it is), and even if it did, its communication protocols will all be obsolete, making its apps unable to run. Such products have their market, but I anticipate that at the higher end—at least once the first rush of novelty has passed—most watch buyers will still be looking for something a little more enduring.

Posted by jon at 11:59 PM in Computers 
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