By Thomas Shambler
Welcome to the age of the smart watch. And far from leaving it to the big boys of tech to battle it out for your wrist, one Swiss watchmaker has thrown its hat in to the connected ring
Baselworld, the world's biggest watch show. An extravaganza of timepieces from some of the biggest names in watchmaking. Baselworld happens each March in Switzerland and gives brands big and small a chance to show of the new year's wares. However, this year something was different. While traditional watches, both mechanical and quartz, were proudly displayed on booths owned by the likes of Omega, Tudor, Rolex, and Blancpain, there was something new afoot.
One particular watch was causing quite a stir, discussed in hushed tones around the exhibition. For the first time, a smart watch had managed to gain entry in to the show. It didn't find its way in to the hallowed exhibition halls via a cheeky tech startup or would-be watchmaking house looking to make a name for itself, either. It was proudly displayed on the stand of a manufacture that has been making watches since 1860.
On September 9, 2014, the watch world braced itself. The Apple Watch was announced, and overnight the Silicon Valley giant became one of the biggest watch producers in the world. The rhetoric from Switzerland was almost unilateral, "This is not a watch, it is a digital accessory" but that didn't matter. The traditional Swiss brands realized that smart watches could not be ignored. When the Apple Watch launched, more than a few would have shipped to Switzerland, direct to R&D labs, to be fondled, flicked and dissected. Quite quickly after that, watch makers large and small started to take an interest in the connected watch.
The following year, big brands like Montblanc and IWC started introducing variations of the concept. Be it smart modules, attached to the strap of a traditional watch, or traditional 'dumb' watches with smart features built in (and meant to be connected to a smartphone), each idea was a direct response to Apple's revolutionary wristwear.
The brands that didn't immediately jump on the bandwagon cited the Quartz Crisis from the 70s and 80s. During that time, as quartz technology proved far cheaper to produce and more accurate in time telling than traditional watches, the watch industry decimated itself. Price wars drove some of the biggest names in the businesses to bankruptcy. Those that survived only did so after going back to mechanical watchmaking, making low-quantity and high-quality timepieces. It is a strategy many have stuck to since. Until now.
TAG Heuer – lead by watch-industry legend Jean-Claude Biver (and president of LVMH's watch division) – upped the ante when it announced it would be producing its very own smart watch (or in Tag nomenclature, a 'connected watch'). Biver proposed a marriage between the best of technology and the finest of Swiss watchmaking. While there was nothing to show at the time, TAG Heuer said it would be making this timepiece with help from two of the biggest tech brands in the world, Google, and Intel. The fruits of that dream collaboration were seen late last year. As the world's media gathered at LVMH Tower in New York, Biver pulled back the curtain on the TAG Heuer Connected – the world's first Swiss-made smartwatch.
Tag's Connected runs Android Wear, a modification of the platform that powers most of the world's smartphones (and a direct competitor to Apple). It has a touchscreen, multiple home screens, and apps – accessible by a few swipes of the finger. Unlike previous smart watches, this touchscreen is protected by a sheet of sapphire crystal. The second hardest material on earth, it's been used to minimize the chance of scratches by the watchmaking industry for decades.
It's smart, leaving the technology to the experts. If anyone could take the fight to Apple, it would be Google. Android Wear is packed with a wide variety of functions, from alarms to notifications, and more than a match for the Apple Watch. Battery lasts slightly more than a day and requires charging at night.
Tech and watch designers value different aesthetics. Technology seems obsessed with minimalism and maximising functionality while watchmaking is a mix of looks, heritage and telling a story. The Tag Heuer Connected makes use of the latter. It's Swiss design through and through, with a fit, look and feel that could only have come from a traditional watchmaker. The idea was to produce a smart watch that would not be immediately recognizable. When worn on the wrist, it would look like a fantastic watch first, and a connected one second. There are rumours that upon being presented with the prototype, TAG Heuer's own General Manager didn't realize it was the connected watch, but instead a Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 (the firm's new flagship).
The question is, who would wear one? Is it meant to attract gadget geeks in to the world of traditional timekeeping? Or offer an alternative smart watch to those smitten with mechanical watches? Perhaps it's a little of both. The Apple watch is essentially a glass slab, a miniature iPhone on the wrist (and even then, it requires an iPhone to be useful). There's no doubting TAG's connected looks far more like a watch. But TAG Heuer is also doing something that no technology company can. Realizing its smartwatch will be all but redundant at the end of its two-year warranty period (such is the rapid pace of new technology), it's letting early buyers of the Connected watch trade it in for a specially reserved mechanical one with a similar look and feel.