Smartwatches: Even Rolex should tremble
Watch watchers are working overtime this summer as first one then another tech company pulls a smart timepiece out of its hat. The Pebble, which I reviewed in May, was not the first such phone-linking device but it was the catalyst. Its hugely successful crowdfunding through Kickstarter proved that the market exists. Another Kickstarter watch, the Hotwatch is hoping to eclipse this success.
Among the mainstream players, Sony has introduced a second version of its earlier watch while the first really serious play comes from Samsung with the Galaxy Gear. Even Qualcomm, an unlikely participant, has announced the Tok. There are more in the pipline, including or not including the fabled iWatch from Apple. Last week, website Digital Trends published a list of every smartwatch rumoured to be in the offing.
The market place is already becoming crowded and is due to become even busier, particularly when Apple joins the party later this year or early 2014. So far, though, I have not sensed the arrival of the killer smartwatch, the one that will finally seal the trend and turn the smartwatch into a serious contender for that precious bit of real estate on the wrist. When it does come, as I am sure it must, it will seal the fate of much of the watch industry. The lower end of the watch business, above the really cheap offerings under £25 and up to watches in the £500 bracket, will be hit first and hardest. It is only a matter of time before someone's smartwatch does for wrist watches what smartphones have already done for the point-and-shoot camera market.
Long-term it is not just this segment of the watch industry that needs to worry. Most of us have only one wrist suitable for a watch. In the case of right-handers it is usually the left wrist and wearing something on the right wrist feels uncomfortable. A watch on both wrists is pretty dorky and unlikely to become fashionable. What happens to expensive Swiss watches when someone produces the definitive smartwatch that is well-built, looks the business and acts as a communications module to complement today's increasingly digital life?
My IWC chronograph is glued to my left wrist and will have to be surgically removed in order to accommodate, say, an Apple iWatch. But once I give in to this temptation my relationship with IWC will never be the same again. It isn't just a matter of swapping timepieces like jewellery, as do many watch afficionados. Once reliance is placed on using a smartwatch it will become very difficult to put it to one side while the Rolex, Cartier or Jeager LeCoultre is sported for special occasions.
Some of the established brands might attempt to crash the party, perhaps by creating excluside enclosures for an off-the-peg Android smartwatch module but, I suspect, these will be unsuccessful. Already, Citizen has marketed a sort of analog/digital almost-smart watch, the Citizen Proximity which I reviewed last November and found wanting. Others will follow.
There is no doubt that wearable computing is coming. Google Glass is only a diversion and, so far, the wrist seems to be the natural place to be. This little spot on the anatomy will be fought over and eventually conquered by the smart digital device. The iPhone itself will become the fob watch of technology and the wrist will be the place to be. For the traditional watch manufactuers the wrist is likely to be the last frontier.
When that happens not only the low- and middle-sector watch manufacturers will need to worry. Rolex & Co are already on notice that within a few years only the Luddites among us will be shelling out upwards of £5,000 for one of their timeless timepieces. Instead, we will all be wearing the latest smartwatch, renewed every year or so as the fancy and technological progress takes us.