Watching the Wearables

Did you know that over 1.2 billion watches are sold annually? And high as that 2012 number might seem, it’s still less than the 1.8 billion phones that was sold last year.

Watches and phones are the most personal items that we carry about every day, yet have always operated independently of each other.

That’s changing rapidly as “wearables” begin their inevitable ascent, and I couldn’t be more excited about the possibilities that went through my head as I started using a Moto 360 smartwatch this week.

The Moto 360 was not launched in Singapore but I managed to buy it from Amazon at the MSRP of $250 USD ($330 SGD) with free overseas shipping. The affordable price (well, at least compared to other watches) sealed the deal even though I was well aware of the Moto’s flaws and limitations. In Singapore, there are online retailers selling the Moto 360 for over $450 and you should avoid them since Amazon offers free shipping (which takes about 2 weeks).

This not a review of the Moto 360 (there are so many online), but it opened my eyes to the changes that are coming. This is a long post, so bear with me as I have much to say on this topic.

Same Same For Over 40 Years

My sister Joanne gave me this Tag Heur in 2001. It’s been retired after being repaired several times due to abuse at the hands of my toddler son. It’s a great memento as it followed me through most of my journalism days.

Until four years ago, I was never really interested in watches.

I’ve always had a watch since primary school but they were purely utilitarian tools – whether it was a G-shock, Seiko or the Tag Heuer my sis gave me for a graduation gift.

Then somehow in 2011 I started getting fascinated by limited edition G-shocks and mechanical watches (it could have been an mid-age crisis thing) and then I spent the past few years learning more about watch design and history.

Interestingly, watch technology has not evolved much over the past 40 years. They essentially come in either quartz models (battery driven – digital or analogue) or mechanical movements (hand wound or self-powering automatics).

Some new enhancements like radio-band syncing, GPS or Bluetooth have appeared, but aren’t very mainstream features. I believe most people just wear quartz watches for their long battery life and accuracy.

The first quartz wristwatch movement Caliber 35A from Seiko in 1969. (Source: Wikipedia)

Quartz watch technology in itself is a case study of massive industry disruption (which I’m getting to later). Now people of my generation may not know this, but cheap quartz watches nearly took down the prestigious Swiss watch industry in the late 1970s.

We may think that Swatch watches are a 1990s has-been fad, but it was Swatch that helped to turn the Swiss industry around in the 1980s with its “Swiss-made” label, low cost models and fun designs. Here’s the historical account of the near apocalypse according to Swatch:

In the late 1970s, a Swiss watch was a work of careful craftsmanship, a uniquely valuable timepiece handed down from one generation to the next, to be cherished for a lifetime. Fitted with a complicated, hand-crafted mechanical movement, it was the expression of a culture in which changes took place, if they took place at all, only after slow deliberation, and at the speed of glaciers racing down the Alpine valleys.

New models were introduced, but changes in how watches were made were few and far between. And then? Then came the crisis—not entirely unexpected, but serenely ignored for much too long. Overnight, it seemed, the market was flooded with watches from Asia equipped with quartz movements. They kept good time—most were at least as accurate as even the best mechanical watches—and they were cheap. You didn’t have to save for months or years to afford one. Worst of all, people were buying them! Even the Swiss were buying cheap watches, in the thousands!

It didn’t take genius to see what was happening. In a few short years, the value of Swiss watch exports had been cut in half. The Swiss share of the market dropped from over 50 to 15 per cent, and competition from Asia slashed the number of watchmaking jobs in Switzerland from 90,000 to fewer than 25,000: Swiss watchmakers were an endangered species.

As the story goes, the Swiss took a chance on Swatch, and it became a massive hit globally. These days, the Swatch Group is a behemoth of the watch industry that not only churns out millions of plastic Swatch watches, but also sells high-end mechanical movements, and owns many premium watch brands like Tissot and Blancpain. I mention the Swiss watch industry because they produce only 2.5% of the total watch volume in the world, but own 54% of the market dollar revenue (2012).

Source: Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH)

This goes to show how many cheap watches there are… or how people will pay extravagantly for luxury timepieces :).

Now what happens when the majority of people today who refuse to buy any watch more than say, $100 USD, find that there’s a $200 smartwatch they want to upgrade to? How will the watch industry shift?

The Middle Ground

New technology can be disruptive, but even more disruptive are the new sales channels that don’t need to deal with high rentals, advertising and people costs.

In this century, watches have become much cheaper, or much more expensive than ever, depending on which target market you belong to. I’m probably in a narrow audience segment – apart from G-shocks, I don’t like mass market watches (ie. any watch you will find in City Chain) and I can’t afford a luxury timepiece.

I found a middle ground in “microbrand” mechanical watches from the likes of Steinhart, Prometheus and Gruppo Gamma (which is actually a Singapore firm I highly encourage you to check out).
The rock solid Triton 30 ATM from Steinhart in Germany cost 370 euros but looks and wears better than many watches three times its price. (From Steinhart website)


These “micro-brand” watches are made by small companies who source for high quality but low-cost components, and make either “homage” models or all-new designs from them.

Micro-brand watches tend to be affordable for the middle class – between $200-$800 USD. They cut operating costs by selling direct via websites, doing more viral marketing than traditional marketing,and often keeping inventory low by driving most sales through limited pre-orders.

You could say they are imitation brands, but watch enthusiasts will tell you it’s about great value for money. You’re not getting a cheap knock-off, the watches come with assured warranty, and this business model is also reflected in the popularity of Xiaomi phones today. I’d recommend Oceanic Time and ABlogToWatch as great blogs for both microbrand and well-known brand watches.

Now what if micro-brand or mainstream watch companies find an opportunity to sell premium smartwatches at a really low price point? If it’s so easy to procure generic watch movements today, won’t it be just as easy to assemble off-the-shelf smartwatch components with your choice of operating systems?

Yes, I’m already dreaming of a G-Shock smartwatch.

When Is A Watch Not A Watch?
The Predator’s smartwatch – used for blowing things up real good when all is lost.

Personally, I think that we’ll see significant change to why people wear watches within the next ten years – possibly more dramatic than the 1970s quartz revolution – because wearables change the fundamental idea of what a watch is.

Any $10 or $1000,000 watch can display the time accurately. But what should the watch of the future do?

I remember in 2003, a colleague in SPH asked me if I had bought the latest Nokia handphone with a color camera. I said : “Please, the quality of that VGA camera really sucks! Why would I use one?”

Then over the next decade,we saw how phone cameras decimated the compact digital camera market, and how dumb phones became the dazzling mini-computers of today. It all happened with the acceleration of miniaturization, high-speed wireless networks, low-power Bluetooth 4.0, high quality displays, and cheap cheap storage.

The same technological shifts have transformed (or whacked) 20th century industries like music, movies, books, television, photography, and many traditional businesses (eg. travel agencies). I no longer buy books, CDs, Blu-Ray discs, and I try to stream everything using Netflix.

Watches, despite with their high volume sales and ubiquity, have remained untouched for a long time because the technologies weren’t really ready yet.

But that’s about to change. Today, wearables try to meet a few basic needs like fitness and communications. What if watches could be payment devices, security devices for unlocking doors, anti-terrorist alarm buttons and so on?

According to the Futurama Wiki: The wrist device that Leela has been shown to have at least seven uses: a communicator, nose re-attacher, Tetris and Pong, detect whether or not the Omicronian young are edible, a tracking device receiver, a tissue dispenser, targeted advertising, and an inbuilt laser.

Three Become One

There are three major types of wearables today, and it’s just a few more years before they all become one single category of smartwatches.

1) Pure fitness watches

The Garmin Forerunner 620 is the best in class for runners.

Garmin, Polar and Suunto have been making GPS fitness watches for years. Their top models are unsurpassed in their ability to track marathons, cycling and swimming.

But the average person never uses this type of watches much as they aren’t hardcore exercisers, and many jog with their smartphones that come with fitness apps like Runkeeper. I use the Garmin Forerunner 620 and it’s excellent at what it does.

Already, we see Garmin trying to add health tracking features and phone notifications to their latest triathlete flagship the Forerunner 920XT – because they know just tracking hardcore exercise is not enough.

2) Casual health trackers

fitbit charge
The Fitbit Charge (Image from Fitbit site)

These devices usually track walking steps and not much more. I think Nike pushed this into the mainstream with its Sportsband pedometer and later, Fuel Band. Today, this is the most crowded arena with Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin and Microsoft looking to attract the average user.

However, I personally think this category is just a current fad, and will not survive long because many smartphones today have motion trackers that do the step-counting thing pretty well, and honestly, I don’t think walking 10,000 steps a day is as useful as actually sweating it out with regular jogs or swims.

Some trackers also monitor your sleep, which I think is not very useful – so what if you know how many times you woke up last night? We never needed gadgets to tell us about our morning eye-bags in the past, so what has changed? Now if I had a tracker that actually recorded my dreams….

Still, many folks feel better if they have something telling them what they already know. I graduated quickly from the Nike Sportsband to a Garmin Forerunner 220 because it was more important to know the actual distance that I was running, than some estimate provided by a pedometer.

What some of the newer models do offer is smartphone notifications (Garmin Vivosmart, Fitbit Surge and Microsoft Band), and that’s spiffy because you don’t have to keep taking out your phone to see who’s messaging or calling you.

Fitbit is also graduating to a full fitness watch with the upcoming Fitbit Surge. They probably know that the market is closing in on casual trackers.

3) Smartwatches

The LG G Watch R running Android Wear. (Image from LG website)

This is the most exciting wearables category, and the one that has let people down the most to date because the technology is still very young and the battery life is often terrible.

Smartwatches promise the aesthetics of traditional watches, the functionality of fitness watches and health trackers, and important integration with your phone’s technologies and always-on connection to Internet services. If your phone can barely last a day doing all the things it does, what more a smartwatch with today’s lithium-ion batteries?

Until new battery technologies go mainstream, the answer to that really lies in a change in user habits (people need to understand a smartwatch display cannot be always on) and the use of highly efficient display technologies.

IMO, a smartwatch needs to go at least one week without charging – that makes it possible to go on overseas trips without bringing another charger.

Samsung and Sony have been coming out with multiple smartwatch models in the past two years but none have been a major hit. Limited apps, inconsistent use of operating systems (Tizen and Android Wear) and bulky aesthetics are often limiting factors.

samsung gear family
Samsung’s Gear family (from Samsung Gear site)

Samsung, with all its display technology prowess, has not yet come up with a circular-face smartwatch. Tech companies need to understand that the public associates watches and clocks with circles more than rectangles. Even grandfather clocks have round faces inset into a rectangular box. You might say that smartwatches need to have their own aesthetic, but I’d reply that time goes around in circles, and I don’t want a calculator on my wrist.

Still, kudos for these two companies for trying to pioneer a totally new market.

The Pebble – life in e-ink monochrome

There’s also the Pebble, a Kickstarter project that has done pretty well but I think its days are numbered in its current incarnation. I never bothered with the Pebble (either the plasticky original or Pebble Steel) because of the toy-like design and it uses E-ink display technology. E-ink offers great battery life because it’s monochrome and doesn’t need constant power, but it’s also rather low-resolution and boring looking. C’mon, a daily smartwatch needs a color screen! Pebble is fighting hard against the onslaught of Android Wear and Apple Watch, and recently became compatible with Android Wear notifications too.

The Apple Watch (image from Apple site)

Apple Watch… who doesn’t know it?  It’s very pretty, very premium but it won’t see a launch till next year. Nobody knows the exact pricing or battery life. I like the overall aesthetics and user interface, but I don’t want a rectangular watch. I want a round one. And a watch that can take my standard 22mm leather straps too, and not just the proprietary ones sold by Apple.

All that said, the two most …err.. watched smartwatches in this space are currently the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch R. And they’re the only ones with a round watch face.

The Moto 360

That’s a press image of the Ducati Scrambler motorcycle that I plonked onto a custom Moto 360 face within minutes.

In the few days, I’ve kept myself busy figuring out how to use the Moto 360 and how to extract the best battery life out it (it won’t go beyond two days). It’s been a fascinating journey to understand the thought processes behind Android Wear and where the smartwatch industry is going.

Being the geek that I am, I also manually pushed three firmware updates in the first night from Android Wear 4.4 to 5.01, each bringing significant improvements in battery life and functionality. So really, much of the magic lies in software.

Faces! Faces! Faces!

The most obvious thing about a smartwatch is that it doesn’t need to stick to one watch face. You can choose from bundled watch face designs, make your own, or simply download a watch face (free, or paid version from Google Play Store).

Moto 360 in the car

The Moto 360 Connect app allows for instant customization with your own images (I used a silhouette of the Ducati Scrambler motorcycle).

If you want to tap into the public domain, use apps like Facer or Watchmaker to download watch faces from that look straight out of Kamen Rider, Macross or Pacific Rim. This goes way beyond what Dick Tracy could do with his radio phone.

The Moto 360 was only released in September but a mindblowing number of watch faces have already been uploaded by its owners and other designers.

We’re looking at thousands of watch faces available right now and many of these watch faces are free to download to your watch. From simple watch dials to TMNT toy-watch imitations to snazzy Iron Man JARVIS replicas, the choice is limitless. Most of them are amateurish in quality, but there are many gems too.

Piracy… already?

As expected, many of these faces are user-made copies of existing luxury watches, and the watch industry has moved very quickly to clamp down on these infringements with cease-and-desist letters. It’s impossible though, the watch face files are still spreading rapidly through file-share services and private messages and I managed to find them easily on forums.

What’s probably frightening for watchmakers is that any guy with Photoshop and the correct app can replicate the exact look of any luxury watch and create an Android Wear face in less than a day. And to circumvent copyright, home-brew watch designers can often just remove brand logos, alter a few design elements and call it a “brand homage” since they aren’t charging money for it.

But why not let people download a Rolex or Sinn face to see if they like it, and maybe that’s a form of great digital marketing that could encourage people to buy the actual physical versions? Or why not release a free Limited Edition F1 2015 digital watch face to associate your premium watch with fast cars?

On second thought, maybe that’s too idealistic, because a very real concern by any watch manufacturer is that an infinitely changing smartwatch will replace a traditional watchpiece for good. The first instinct of any watchmaker would be to protect its traditional turf.

But let’s put aside this business debate, since I don’t sell watches so what do I know? What is exciting, is that this great enthusiasm for DIY designs will lead to new watch face designs we haven’t even begun to think of, and new ways of expressing the passage of time plus contextful data.

Motorola bundled some traditional-looking and modern watch faces with the Moto 360, but I quickly found those, along with the rip-off luxury watch faces, to look boring pretty fast. I now only look for out-of-the-box watch faces, preferably one that makes me look like Marty McFly from Back To The Future II.

Locking You In

In terms of phone notifications, the Moto 360 requires an Android phone or tablet to work with. That’s pretty frustrating if you’re not an Android user but want that nice round metal design on your wrist.

I borrowed a Galaxy S5 to try out the notifications feature, or else the Moto 360 would be a “dumb smartwatch”. Watch notifications are nice, given that you no longer have to keep taking out your phone just to see what’s the incoming message or calendar update.

Of course, this is a strategic move to further lock people into the Android ecosystem and to get more Android phones sold. Hopefully we’ll see a more open approach to multiple platforms in the future. I used the Microsoft Band for a while and it was great to see it work across iOS, Android and Windows Phone for notifications and data syncing.

On Ergonomics and Pricing

moto 360 siteMost people will agree that Motorola got the design very right with the Moto 360, if you discount the “flat tyre” black portion that breaks the perfectly circular screen (that’s where the ambient light sensor is).

By keeping the watch chassis as simple and as elegant as possible, this makes it compatible with just about any custom watch face out there, while allowing it to be a very presentable dress or hipster watch.

The Horween grey leather strap isn’t very premium, but at least it’s comfortable and can be swapped out for other third party straps.

The Moto chassis has a pretty low height of 11.5mm and I believe can actually go a few millimeters thicker to allow a bigger capacity battery. That would put it on par with many modern mechanical watches but that could also turn off the ladies.

In any case, the Moto 360 sets down a great design template for future smartwatches – a 46mm screen diameter, very thin bezel, comfortable and swappable strap.

What Motorola did even better was to offer it at $250 USD, which is cheaper than many G-shocks, Seikos, Citizens or Fossil watches in the market today.

One might say that $250 is too expensive for a watch that won’t run for more than 2 days, but on the other hand, it’s the new floor price for upcoming technology and puts pressure on future model pricing. It’s also a price that many people can accept for a unique gadget (I mean, have you seen the price of a GoPro Hero 4?)

Of course, it won’t be long before China companies swoop in on smartwatches like they did with smartphones to drive down pricing, and I really believe it a $100 (or even $50) fully-fledged smartwatch will happen as soon as within the next few years.

Unlike complicated mechanical watches that cost many man-hours to craft, a premium smartwatch of the future really just needs a high-quality metal chassis and a high-resolution screen and reliable motherboard components that can be slapped together in a few minutes.

This is where, as I earlier mentioned, that the share of the watch industry revenue can now begin to shift to smaller players.

Time’s Up For This Long Post

On one hand, I think there’s nothing like a well-crafted steel watch on my wrist and I don’t even need to worry about batteries if it’s an automatic mechanical watch. I took a break from wearing the Moto 360 and strapped on my beastly metal G-shock and did it feel good with all that heft and “always-on” watch face.

People who appreciate mechanical watches also know the amount of work that goes into the use of materials and the exacting design that makes an appealing watch face. One looks not just at the balance of visual elements, but also the illusion of depth that great watch faces can offer.

On the other hand, smartphones are already outselling dumbphones in the world, so one should not assume that wearables are just a momentary fad for tech early adopters. When good tech gets cheap enough, everyone jumps in.

If you ask the majority of people who aren’t into watches, they’ll probably say they will just buy a watch when their previous one breaks down, and they’ll go for something within a modest budget.

But if they see watches as multi-functional, infinitely-customizable gadgets, that conversation might change – they might want the latest and the greatest model, just as they keep upgrading their handphones. Remember how we used to pay only a few hundred dollars for the latest dumbphone in the early 2000s? How is it that people will pay a thousand dollars or more for top-end phone today?

For the time being, you might want to hold off on trying out smartwatches until the tech and battery life gets better.

But don’t hesitate if you want a taste of the future today. Personally, I can’t wait to see what’s on my wrist three years from now.

3 Replies to “Watching the Wearables”

  1. Very interesting article. Thanks for that.
    I got here by following your link from where I was looking for information on the Moto 360.
    Do you have any experience of wearing yours in the rain?
    The motorola webpage claims IP67 water resistance but the user guide says “Don’t expose your mobile device to water, rain, extreme humidity, sweat or other liquids.”.
    What’s the use of a wrist watch that can’t take a drop of sweat or a shower?

    1. Hi Philip,

      I wore it for a while in some light rain and that was it. Essentially you don’t want to get this wet, not so much because of its water resistance, but the leather strap cannot take too much water exposure. It’s a moot point if you wear the metal strap version though.

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