Maybe We’ve Been Thinking About Smartwatches All Wrong

Listening to LVMH watch chief Jean-Claude Biver talk about smartwatches, it sometimes seems like he’s going through the five stages of grief.

Denial: “A smartwatch is programmed to become obsolete. How could I mix Hublot with something made for obsolescence? It’s impossible.” 

Anger: “[The Apple Watch] has no sex appeal. It’s too feminine. It looks like it was designed by a student in their first trimester.”

Bargaining: “[Smartwatches] will clearly not be competing with the high-end Swiss watches, which account for most of the exports.” 

Depression: “A smartwatch is very difficult for us because it is contradictory. Luxury is supposed to be eternal.” 

Acceptance: Biver announces TAG Heuer is looking at new partnerships and acquisitions as it develops its own smartwatch.

Of course, Biver, like the rest of us, is still wrapping his head around the prospect of our prized pretty products being transformed into geeky gadgets. But perhaps we’re thinking of this wrong.

Last month, for an upcoming feature, the JCK editorial team wore smartwatches for a week. That might not be enough time for a gadget to  get its tentacles into your soul. I was worried that I’d be sad to give it up. It was no problem: I’ve had coffee mugs I’ve grown more attached to.

In the end, I never found much use for it. Getting texts was kind of cool—or it could have been, if you could reply. (You can’t.) It was fun changing the music playing through my TV—once. (All right, not even that.) For now, there is not much a smartwatch can do that a smartphone can’t—and since you still need a phone nearby, you might as well use that. 

Did I like anything? Having not worn a watch in forever, I appreciated having the time sitting there on my wrist. Which is an irony: My favorite part of having a smartwatch was that it was a watch. I also liked having constant access to the weather.  

Which got me thinking: Why shouldn’t a watch tell you the weather? (Some do already.) And how about another smartwatch feature—notifications? If you have a meeting Thursday at 3 p.m., perhaps a watch calendar function could let you know. Why should timepieces cede those functions to a phone?

Last week, Apple designer Jony Ive was boasting about the Apple Watch’s new alarm function:

“Somebody was saying, ‘Wow, do you know what I just did? I set the alarm in the morning, and it woke just me by tapping my wrist. It didn’t wake my wife or my baby…isn’t that fantastic?’ “

Sounds cool. It also sounds like something a regular watch might potentially pull off—even better than Apple’s, which is currently impossible to sleep with, as it has to be charged every night. (Ive didn’t mention that.)

For all their mechanical expertise, many Swiss watch brands are more about high style than high tech. And that’s great; some people just wear watches because they enjoy them. Not every object has to be able to let users check Twitter or park their BMW.

But there could be a happy medium here. Maybe watchmakers should be thinking about how to make their products more useful to customers. 

After all, the watch wasn’t invented for people to show off in rap videos. Once upon a time (i.e,. a decade ago), there was a real need for it. Now with smartphones, they have become mostly decorative ornaments—shiny metal throw pillows for the wrist. Which is fine—it’s the basis of our industry. But is it possible for them to do more?

How about watch products that not only look good, but assist people in their daily routines? How about returning watches to what they once were—genuinely helpful objects people can’t live without? You don’t have to out-gizmo Silicon Valley, just figure out functions that people might appreciate and enjoy. That would be more than just a panicked response to Apple. It might also be smart.

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JCK News Director