This year, wearable devices are taking center stage at major device conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress. With smartwatches on the rise, will the trend catch on among serious watch collectors, too?
Samsung Gear, Qualcomm Toq, Pebble, HTC Preview — these are only some names among more than a dozen smartwatches that will either be introduced, launched or updated at MWC in Barcelona this week. These devices are starting to steal the limeleight from smartphones and tablets, which have been the focus of attention in the recent years. The Internet of Things, after all, has diverted attention away from devices traditionally associated with the Internet (such as notebook computers, tablets and even smartphones), to supposedly mundane devices that can now connect and communicate with each other and with humans.
Remember the calculator watch?
Smartwatches aren’t altogether a new class of devices, however. Even before the Android- or Tizen-powered smartwatch that we know today, some bold manufacturers have launched and maintained their own “smart” watches.
In the 1980s, Casio came out with calculator-watches. In the 1990s, various manufacturers launched watches that synchronized data — mostly appointments and alarms — with watches. Take the TIMEX Datalink, for example. Even the 2000s Tissot T-Touch was cool enough to be featured in a Lara Croft movie. Functionalities were limited, of course, and these so-called “computer” watches could do no more than a miniaturized PDA could. Except, of course, if you’re James Bond, in which case your Omega Seamaster can kill or disable bad guys with a twist of the bezel.
These days, smartwatches are almost full-fledged wrist-worn counterparts of smartphones, which could sync data and interface with other devices wirelessly, as well as have their own input method through touch screen. Most are powered by Android, although some run proprietary systems (e.g., Samsung is switching from Android to Tizen in its Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo line).
There is question whether smartwatches — and wearable devices, in general — will have mass-market appeal. For instance, Google Glass has had mixed reception at this early stage in its life, particularly with the privacy concerns that come with having everyone wear a connected camera- and mic-enabled device on their heads. Will smartwatches come with the same sentiment?
uTest blog offers a few criteria that might help gain mass market appeal for smartwatches, namely design, apps and ecosystem. Just like choosing a smartphone or a smartphone platform, one would usually want the device to work seamlessly with the gadgets and services already being used. But apart from mass appeal, will there be a high-end niche audience for smartwatches?
How about collectors?
Going beyond mass market, another good question to consider is whether smartwatches will also appeal to watch collectors and watch enthusiasts. Patek Philippe’s marketing copy goes like this: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” A well-built watch, after all, often have a lifetime that can last longer than its owner. Can a smartwatch last beyond the life cycle of the usual smartphone or tablet?
There are a few smartwatches that promise luxury and meticulous build quality like the Pebble Steel and the MetaWatch. However, even if you build a smartwatch with the most precious metals, stones and crystals, its functionality will most likely become obsolete, or at least superseded by better technologies, in only a few months. Compare this with a mechanical timepiece. Even with the minute accuracy of Quartz-based and radio-controlled atomic clocks, collectors and enthusiasts are stilll going for automatic and wind-up watches.
Here’s an even more interesting idea. Even if the tourbillon (like the one in the pictured Alain Silberstein ladies’ piece) is now an obsolete feature in timepieces, some watch-makers still use this 18th century technology developed by Breguet, if only to show off their craftsmanship and the device’s novelty.
With fast update cycles, Moore’s law and battery degradation, it’s not likely that a collector would want to hold on to a smartwatch years or decades after launch. Or is it perhaps a given that smartwatches are built to be be used rather than collected?
Novelty, or essential everyday accessory?
Arguably, the best way to view smart and connected devices at this point is to consider smartphones in the era before the iPhone, or even before Symbian popularized the smartphone. Back then, smartphones were a novelty. PDA-phones were mostly PDAs with a cellular phone function for texting and either packet-switched or circuit-switched data connections. If you remember the Compaq iPaq, HP Jornada and Handspring Treo of old, these were more PDA than phone. Even the Nokia Communicator was a ginormous device more suitable to a briefcase than a pocket (sure, phablets are also big, but that’s another story altogether).
While smartwatches are not anything practical for everyone at this point, perhaps there will be a time when connected watches will become commonplace. But even with mass-market appeal, it is likely that horophiles will still go for mechanical watches that transcend time, technology and platform.