Smartwatches — Lifelong Keepsake or 2 Year Throwaway?

The conundrum of taking something meant to last a lifetime and giving it a 2–3 year life-cycle

Watches have come a long way over the last century. What started as handmade, custom timepieces grew into a booming industry, with everything from your high-end product to your $1 throwaway.

Classic watches (more expensive watches) are often viewed as long term investments, meant to last 5–10 years, if not a lifetime. Some become collectors pieces even, pieces of history, statement items. Luxury brands such as Tag-Heuer, Rolex, Cartier and many more epitomize this trend.

On the other hand, modern technology is often known to cycle every 2–3 years, which has been accepted by consumers. Part of this is historically due to the market and the power/usability of technology changing so fast (Moore’s Law). Every 2–3 years you have to upgrade to keep up. Part of this is purely fuelled by the release cycles of major companies, who focus their efforts on ensuring a constant stream of upgrades to ensure profitability and to enable them to continue selling into the market. Part of this comes from planned obsolescence and the idea that it is in fact built to have a limited life.

So how does the smartwatch, the combination between the two worlds, fit in? In some ways, we are only beginning to get into the second year of the first true smartwatch cycle, with the launch of the Apple Watch bringing them mainstream, you may even call this the first year. As we move beyond the early adopters and it begins to reach mass market, what does our future look like in 2 years’ time? There are a few key issues to consider.

Apple Watch Edition — AU$14,000 asking price


You can’t escape it. Part of a classic, long lasting watches appeal is in the price and value. A $10,000 watch is perceived to be a long term investment that may last a lifetime. A $300–500 watch however may only be expected to last a shorter time. Smartwatches are being priced anywhere from $100-$14,000, so how do we determine our expectations? Much like we have gotten used to paying for phones, we may adjust to paying for the latest smartwatch every few years. However, for those shilling out big money on an Apple Watch Edition, or possibly the new Tag-Heuer creation in production, where do the expectations sit then?

If/When Apple release their sales figures for the Apple Watch Edition, i guess we’ll find out! But what will your Apple Watch Edition buyer think in 2 years time (or even less) when the new model is released? Should their $14,000 investment last a lifetime simply because it is expensive? Anybody into new PC parts, or even car buying, will know there is always a premium for the latest, followed by a swift depreciation, however it’s too soon to know if this will be the trend on such a “luxury” technology product.

Roger Federer in Rolex Ad


The earliest smartwatches have received little in the way of promotion through mainstream channels. A very occasional commercial, or launch event, does not a true marketing campaign make. Instead they have relied on true early adopters showing interest and finding their products, particularly given limited availability/locations. However, it has been interesting to note how the power of spokespeople has gained traction, something traditional watchmakers have been using as an important tool for years. Iconic pictures of actors like George Clooney, or sportstars like Roger Federer with name brand watches are routinely used as key selling tools. Apple embraced this at their launch by sending out watches to a wide range of influencers and gaining quite a few supports along the way. While no others are as strongly playing in this space yet, no doubt the battle for the wrist will heat up. After all, putting a sports-star in a fitness tracking smartwatch in some ways makes a lot more sense than a show-piece.

Cartier flagship store Citade Jardim Mall Sao Paolo Brazil


Product availability says a lot about it to a customer. Ease of access is definitely important for a product that may need to be fixed at some point, or even replaced. So both physical stores and online are therefore vital, however the ease of use of these channels say different things to different people. Apple has gone to great lengths to hype their purchases. If this will be maintained over time, particularly into the second generation, is yet to be seen. Online channels offer broader range as well as allowing you easy access into markets you might not normally meet (Australia for instance is hardly full of Apple stores), meaning it’s important to have both online and physical store access. Manufacturers offering easier channels are communicating that their product in some ways is easier to replace, has less value and fits in more with a phone or similar technology product, rather than a watch.

Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a Tag-Heuer Watch


Technology companies such as Apple are well placed to make consumers understand that this IS a product that will last a short time, something you will probably buy again in a few years. Classical watch makers however must be slightly worried, particularly the more established luxury brands, as they have large expectations and traditions to uphold which are quite frankly, not built for the fast moving tech world. Tag-Heuer has recently hinted at being able to upgrade their product over time to keep it up to date, but many more modern products will simply end up in a draw as we upgrade in a few years.

What classic watch-makers do have on their side however, is the total product experience, designed to last and manufactured over time. More than just the product itself, it’s the brand and after-sale service that back it up. This is hugely important as the $30,000 watch buyer club will come with certain product expectations to be met, which are most likely to be unfulfilled by smartwatches as they currently stand.

The Future

So what do you take away from reading this? A cautionary tale? A decision to just buy a real watch over the smart variety? Probably none of these things, but I believe we need to be careful about our expectations going in. The struggle to find differentiation between products becomes increasingly clear as more suppliers jump into the market, with design and feature differences being the key highlights. Having said that, this is very much in line with current smartphone advertising, where companies roll out updates yearly and adjust to reflect this, which makes sense to the consumer base and creates synergy between the two. This is distinctly different from your average luxury-watch buying experience, which involves much greater differentiation between products, because of a brands long history.

Watches aside, it will be interesting to see how the Internet of Things holds up to these same values on a whole range of products, be they connected fridges, car systems or anything else that is slowly evolving. Often these transitions are slow, sometimes painful, but eventually everyone is bought forward into a new realm of accessibility and usefulness. Smartwatches are at the pinnacle of this trend right now, and will be a great weather-vane as to how it will progress over the coming 2–3 years.

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