Google’s acquisition of FitBit for a whopping USD 2.1 billion has brought the focus back on the wearable devices as a category. Google has bought Fitbit essentially to enhance the profile of the its users and get valuable health data which Fitbit has been collecting for over a decade now. Google had also invested a fortune in developing smart watches. They already had a platform wearOS and had reportedly spent over USD 40 Mn for a deal with Fossil. This would give them access to ‘smartwatch technology’ and their R&D team. So we can look forward to some serious competition in the smartwatch category now with Google jumping into the ring.
The scene so far
Apple had been running away with the market and commands close to 50% of the market now. Samsung and Fitbit have now almost 13% each with the balance dispersed between Huawei, Fossil, Xiaomi, Garmin and others.
When I read about the Google acquisition, I was reminded of the time I considered buying the Apple Watch when it was unveiled in Sept 2014. It was sporty, it was all purpose, it was smart, it could record my workouts (I am into running, swimming & cycling), it had so many features, it came with changeable straps and changeable watch face and finally... it was the only one of its kind. It was irresistible and I was tempted to buy it almost immediately when it went on sale in April 2015. But the earliest Apple Watch model required me to carry my iPhone with me while running which was very unwieldy. So, when the newer model came with in-built GPS, I immediately lapped it up - the Apple Series 2, Nike Watch.
The consumer conundrum
I own other watches including some Swiss watches (Tag Heuer & Rado) and also fitness devices. For the record, I have in the past owned the Garmin Vivosmart and the Fitbit Charge. With these, the life was simple, as I wore the Swiss watch in my left wrist and the fitness device in my right wrist.
I also have a Garmin multiple discipline watch for logging in my runs. It has GPS, Heart Rate monitoring, time, pace etc.. which was good for my running routines and occasional swimming and cycling. This is a very good watch, but didn’t look very elegant on the wrist to be my main watch.
The Apple watch had changed all that. Now I had a watch which looked very elegant, did the job of a fitness device as also of a multi-discipline watch. Now I didn’t need 2 separate things on both wrists. I could wear this to work and it looked elegant. I could use it for my running, cycling & swimming routine -- it gave all the information I needed and it did the job of a fitness device by tracking my steps, movements, HR etc.. through the day. It does the job of displaying notifications (Emails, SMS, FB, Twitter) remarkably well, if I chose to get notified.
I could also answer my phone calls and have a basic conversation through the watch if I get a call during my bike ride and the phone is in the pouch. It goes beyond its brief, when it asks me to have a deep breathing session once my Heart Rate goes beyond ‘acceptable’ level. I changed the watch face and strap depending on the occasion and was enjoying it.
Every day I discovered new features of the Apple Watch and was happy overall. I realised that the watch ‘rewarded’ me with virtual medals if I achieved the 3 goals for the day – standing, calories burnt & exercise. It would also reward me if I did this for a week continuously and so on. It felt good and I felt motivated.
I used the watch every day for a long time and the Swiss watch got consigned to the drawer.
However, one fine day, I actually begun to miss my Swiss watch. How come? I thought. I had everything in the Apple watch that I could ever want. So why on earth did I miss my Swiss watch? The answers were not easy.
‘The wrist’ I realized is a very premium piece of ‘real estate’ and I wouldn’t allow just about ‘anything’ to adorn it. It has to be good, elegant, functional and yes since it is probably the only serious ‘accessory’ a man possesses, it better be right up there.
How I treat this premium piece of ‘real estate’ would determine the kind of watch that goes on it. A masterpiece painting is to be hung on the wall in the living room and a functional thing like say a hi-tech computer or laptop goes in a workspace. That’s the crux of the difference between a Swiss watch and a Smart watch – the Apple Smartwatch in my case.
A Swiss watch to me is a piece of art. It conjures up images of master craftsmen (or horologists as they are called) adept at their craft of making the finest watches. Swiss watches are all about pride of possession. In lots of families they get passed on from generation to generation as family heirlooms. Their value ‘increases’ with time and nothing … just nothing goes wrong with them and that’s the beauty of a Swiss watch. A Swiss watch was never really about telling the time or about information on the wrist, it was always about adornment, embellishment or a subtle piece of jewelry on your wrist, a luxury. The more you see them, the more you admire them just like an artist’s work. The beauty of the work unravels itself layer by layer and is timeless.
In contrast, Smartwatches are technology. There’s always a newer and better model round the corner. Being technology, it becomes redundant very fast and in most cases don’t last more than a year and hence not timeless. Smartwatch makers are under constant pressure to introduce newer models, more advanced features, a thinner one or the one with a bigger battery life.
So when I go for formal occasions I tend to opt for my Swiss watch and when the occasions is casual or sporty… Apple iWatch is the go-to watch.
But this discussion is not about Apple alone, it’s about smartwatches as a category. In fact I have a belief that wrist watches owe their ‘comeback’ to this category. Wrist watches had almost lost their relevance as a utility ever since smartphones started taking over our lives. Millennials didn’t find much use for the regular quartz or battery operated wrist watches (as that’s what most people can afford) and were discarding it with much alacrity. They were not ‘cool enough’ to be a part of their attire or wardrobe.
And then the smartwatches come into play in which Apple makes a grand entry. Apple’s entry just upped the ‘cool factor’. They are techy, they are modular, have lots of cool features (never mind, if you may never use most of them) they change their form and function depending upon the occasion and hence everyone and his neighbor wanted them. In fact Apple watches have reached a status where they are synonymous with smartwatches. It is light years ahead of the competition – all with the ECG functionality, the built-in connectivity and what not. It’s almost like the status Apple iPhones enjoyed until the others caught up.
Makers of Swiss watches remained in denial suggesting that they have weathered many a storm and quoted digital multi-functional watches (of the 1980’s & 1990’s), quartz watches, solar powered watches etc. However, when smartwatches penetration started inching up, supported in good measure by the entry of Apple with their premium Steel and Rose Gold models, traditional watch makers started to increasingly feel threatened.
I don’t know what it would be like to have the best of both worlds. I would love to have a Swiss watch with changeable straps and dials and similarly the robustness of a Swiss watch in a Smartwatch. Garmin is trying to reach out to the luxury Swiss Watch generation with first their Garmin Fenix Chronos and now the Garmin MARQ series watches which have all the sports and smartwatch functions and is solidly built. On the other hand Tag Heuer is trying to reach out to the smartwatch generation with their Tag Heuer Connected watches. Normally you wouldn’t hear Tag Heuer, Intel and Android in the same sentence… but that’s what Tag Heuer’s collection is all about. It is powered by Intel and Android or Wear OS to offer the build quality of a traditional Swiss Watch and the range of functions and modularity of a smart watch. Tag Heuer has been updating its ‘connected’ collection from the time it was first launched way back in 2015. Similarly, there is the Mont Blanc Summit 2 watch and Tambour Horizon from the luxury brand Louis Vuitton that have experimented with their connected watches for the swish set.
While the jury is still divided on the outcome of the Swiss vs Smart battle one thing is clear that both categories are here to stay. Smartwatches are not a passing fad and will eventually get ‘smarter’ by the day. They are already becoming ‘essential health management’ devices. Umm Ok! Both are seeing a growth, though I believe the Swiss watch makers have more to do to come back into the game and stay aspirational.
And did I forget to mention the quartz battery operated watches here. Well, those are really as I read somewhere – the equivalent of an imitation picture printed from the internet whereas the Swiss watch is the original masterpiece.
The Smartwatch business is expected to grow to over $30bn in the next 3-4 year and Google obviously wants a big share of that business. Google will soon launch its smartwatch with the help of expertise that Fitbit hardware brings. In the meanwhile, I have got myself the gorgeous Apple watch Series 5 (hurry up Google!) and am using it with additional straps I had purchased –a black steel Milanese Loop, a Hermes Leather strap, a Nylon sport loop strap and two colourful elastomer bands. But I will keep coming back to my Rado Centrix Series watch or the Tag Heuer Carrera whenever I get bored of the Apple Watch and still drool on the Omega Seamaster that I am eyeing next.
(The author is a senior professional in the durables and telecommunications space for almost two decades. He is now exploring the world of e-mobility & IOT. He writes on any topic that catches his fancy from management and technology to anything geeky. Twitter @sandeepbangia)