The sedate world of watches is undergoing seismic upheaval as mechanical timepieces compete in a new world of smartwatches and activity bands for the space on your wrist.
By Michael Pickering
Sit at your desk and look around at the things on which you can tell the time.
The options are almost ridiculously multiple, aren’t they? Your desktop computer or laptop, your mobile phone, the fitness tracker you’re still wearing after
a morning run earlier and the ol’ analog watch on the other wrist – time, in its most essential form, has never been more present.
But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the time, it is a-changin'. In a fast-evolving new space, digital devices from smartwatches to fitness bands and activity trackers are becoming "life companions" – recording, interpreting and feeding back on your most basic daily functions, and in the process becoming more personalised, integrated pieces of technology.
Is the inevitable consequence of this development that our traditional methods of time-telling will become quaint, possibly obsolete oddities? And do we really need so many highly functioning clocks in our lives anyway?
Why so smart?
The Apple Watch release has been merely the most high-profile among a flood of new entrants into the field of smartwatches, from the traditional players through to tech firms, consumer electronics companies and health and fitness brands, such as Fitbit and Garmin.
Steve Morley, vice-president and general manager Asia Pacific at Fitbit, has been involved with the brand "since the early days" of mid-2012. According to Morley, health and fitness trackers are seeing "mass adoption", with Australian sales growth of 132 per cent. Australians, he points out, are now the largest market in the world per capita for connected health and fitness devices, while the category as a whole is on track to become the fifth-largest consumer durable in the world by sales volume by the end of 2015.
Replacing such a personal item as a wristwatch is "a big step forward", says Morley, but he points to Fitbit research that shows that 30 per cent of people expressing interest in a smartwatch are looking for health and fitness solutions.
"Smartwatches can do some impressive tricks. The Apple Watch can be used as a key at some hotels, and you can dictate text messages instead of typing them."
This is encapsulated in the Fitbit Surge, sold as a "fitness super-watch" whose crossover design and styling suit the office as well as the gym. It offers GPS tracking, a continuous heart rate monitor, all-day activity tracker, multi-sport tracker, auto sleep and alarms, and wireless syncing with fitness apps on mobiles and PCs.
“Our intent with the [Surge] is that it is a replacement for the real estate a wristwatch currently occupies,” says Morley.
“We’re saying to people: it tells the time and it’s a 24/7 device that puts the workout on your wrist. And during your workday, if people are trying to reach you in meetings, you can put your phone on silent and your messaging will come up on your wrist.”
Smartwatches can do some impressive tricks. The Apple Watch, for instance, can be used as a key at some hotels, and you can dictate text messages instead of typing them.
These smartwatches also come with drawbacks, however. They’re mostly big – perhaps too big for the smaller-wristed.
The Frédérique Constant Horological Smartwatch
They need charging, often through proprietary connectors, and in many cases need to be hooked up to power every night (although some, like the Surge, will last several days, and a few will last even longer). Their apps are of varying quality and fluency. Some, including the Apple Watch, require you to do something to wake them from a power-conserving dark state before they’ll show you the time.
Take-out: Smartwatches are growing in popularity, predominantly among people interested in the health and fitness functionality, but also with people who want to decouple from their phone and customise their style. Try before you buy.
Clocking the trends
Baselworld, the annual gathering of the most successful and prominent players in the timepiece game, is the largest trade fair in the world. At this year’s event in March – which coincided with the worldwide release of the Apple Watch – much of the talk among the timepiece fraternity focused on the likely impact of smartwatches on their industry.
But unlike the 1970s, when many traditional watchmakers closed or were nearly driven out of business by the advent of the cheap Japanese quartz watch, this time around, the serious players are on the front foot.
At Basel, heritage brands and stablemates Frédérique Constant and Alpina released their versions of a smart quartz watch for men and women. To all intents and purposes, they look like traditional analog timepieces, but the crown operates a range of functions you’d find in your standard fitness tracker – sleep and activity tracking, alerts, smart coaching and cloud backup and restore.
Meanwhile Gucci, harnessing the star power of musician and producer Will.i.am, announced it would soon come to market with a fashion-focused smartband, 3G-enabled so that it can make calls, send texts and connect to social networks without the need of a nearby phone.
TAG Heuer’s enigmatic CEO, Jean-Claude Biver – who built his industry reputation on resurrecting historic brands such as Blancpain and Hublot from the quartz crisis – announced that his brand would partner with Google and Intel to develop an Android smartwatch, called the TAG Heuer Carrera Wearable 01, before the end of 2015. Breitling (B55 Connected), Bulgari (Diagono Magnesium) and a host of others plan similar releases.
What does this all mean for traditional mechanical watchmaking? While Biver sees smartwatches as the most obvious way to attract millennials to heritage watch brands and wristwear itself, he is equally sure "high horology" will prosper.
“Smartwatches are condemned to becoming obsolete, while high horology pieces are those destined to be eternal,” he told Watch Now magazine.
Graeme Goldman, a former Swatch executive whose company Lion Brands distributes brands such as Alpina, Bell & Ross and Victorinox, agrees with Biver, but says the line between high horology and the smartwatch entrants is becoming more definite.
High-end brands, such as Audemars Piguet, Hublot and Patek Philippe, that are selling watches above the US$10,000 mark care little about smartwatches, because they are in the business of making high-quality luxury watches, primarily automatic, says Goldman.
But the industry is talking furiously about the possibility that “life companion” elements will become standard on quartz watches, blurring the boundaries between traditional and smart timepieces.
Take-out: Traditional mechanical watches – which with maintenance and care can still be repaired, theoretically, in 1000 years – are likely to become more exclusive, more bespoke and more personal.
Where to for watches?
Which leaves us with a couple of simple options that may, nevertheless, suit a lot of people’s needs in the years ahead. There remain a great many watches on the market that just tell the time, including unobtrusively solar-powered quartz watches such as Citizen’s Eco-Drive range that won’t need their power source touched for
a decade or two.
Another option, of course, is that you can go bare-wristed. Your smartphone’s in your pocket. Your PC, your desk phone, your fridge, your car and a dozen other devices in your life all have clocks. It's just a matter of how much more time you need.
Why I wear an Apple Watch
Tim Smith is marketing manager for fashion group True Alliance. He explains why he's made the switch to a smartwatch.
Are you using most of the functionality of the Apple Watch?
I’m using a fair amount, but probably not even half of what it’s capable of. Ultimately – other than the obvious function of using it to check the time – I’m using it as a "preview pane" for my phone, taking phone calls, checking texts and emails without having to reach for my phone. I do monitor the Activity function and have become addicted to trying to ensure that I meet the goals I've set, as well as counting the steps I do each day.
Do you think you’ll ever wear a traditional watch again?
I’d like to say yes, but as the months go on, it may not be such a certainty. I’m getting so used to just glancing at my wrist and being less "connected" to my phone that it may be harder to give up than I first thought. It’s actually a lot more subtle than constantly pulling your phone out of your pocket. Also, I chose the Milanese loop strap, which means it works for any occasion – it looks equally great with a suit or a T-shirt and jeans.
Has the Apple Watch improved your productivity?
Definitely. Checking my phone to see if I had a message, notification or missed call was a pretty regular activity and was often a form of distraction. With the Apple Watch, there is more trust that I will feel the vibration, and so I have lost the urge to keep checking all the time. In turn, this has made me much more aware of how connected other people are to their phones and how often they check them.
A brief rundown of some of the choices beyond the Apple Watch and Fitbit Surge.
These are tightly integrated with Android phones.
Samsung Gear Live: Sleek, stylish Apple Watch wannabe rival lets you make and receive calls and
get notifications from phone and apps. Personalised real-time information on workouts, including a heart rate sensor.
ASUS Zenwatch: Another style-conscious watch, produced in partnership with Google. Three choices of coloured leather band, distinctive curved screen, customisable face, "wellness manager" and lots of functions for integrating with your smartphone, such as replicating your phone camera’s viewfinder on your wrist.
Sony Smartwatch 3: Simple, well-priced piece, including music playback with 4GB storage and activity tracking via Accelerometer, Compass, Gyro and built-in GPS. Waterproof too.
Other Android contenders: LG Watch R and LG Watch Urbane, Moto 360, Alcatel OneTouch, Huawei Watch.
BEYOND iOS AND Android
Other producers use their own systems that have some interaction with your phone as well as connecting to web-based apps.
Garmin Vivoactive: Offers many of the same specs as the Fitbit Surge and superior battery life is a key issue in the smartwatch battleground. The brand also offers many sport-specific products, such as Garmin Swim and Garmin Approach for golf.
Withings Activité: Swiss manufacture, French design, real watch hands and basic step-counting for those more conscious of style than function.
Further alternatives: Microsoft Band, Pebble Steel and Pebble Time, Fitbit Charge.
Does history repeat?
As the landscape rapidly changes, traditional watchmakers have been busy recalling the horrors of the 1970s "quartz crisis".
With the release of the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Astron in 1969, Seiko sent a shock wave through the staid world of Swiss watchmaking. Though Swiss engineers had also been working on the development of quartz movements, and a number were released around 1970, the proud Swiss industry remained aloof from the "revolution", concentrating on its time-honoured strength – mechanical timepieces. The decision was nearly fatal, as many long-standing watchmakers became insolvent as the cheaper quartz watch became vastly popular.
It took the creation of Swatch in 1983 and the Swiss embrace of small, cheap and colourful watches – 2.5 million sold in less than two years – to restore Switzerland’s most famous industry.