From Clockworks to Computers on Our Wrists

How Apple beat Swiss watchmakers at their own game

Image courtesy of the author.
Drawings of different types of watch and chronometer balance springs. Image: Frederick J. Britten and Harry L. Nelthropp via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The challenges of early watchmaking closely mirror the challenges smartwatch producers face today.

As fashion and comfort demanded thinner watches, watchmakers all over Europe began to investigate new ways of building slimmer clockworks. The challenges of early watchmaking closely mirror the challenges smartwatch producers face today: how to make technology smaller and more powerful.

Swiss Made IWC Schaffhausen

The quartz crisis

While the Swiss were sticking to traditional watchmaking methods, a Japanese company, Seiko, introduced the world’s first battery-based wristwatch in 1969. This unleashed yet another revolution in the watchmaking world.

Smartwatch fatigue

Smartwatches aren’t a new concept. Since the Seiko TV watch that James Bond wore in Octopussy, we’ve been dreaming about putting screens on our wrists. Unfortunately, all early attempts had bulky designs and short battery life. Not surprisingly, none of them became commercial successes.

Pebble Smart Watch

We believe this new product will redefine what people expect from its category.

Many experts were skeptical about the Apple Watch’s industrial design. Tag Heuer’s CEO Jean-Claude Biver told the press, “To be totally honest, it looks like it was designed by a student in their first trimester.” It didn’t take long for Biver to revise his statement.

Tim Cook — from Apple’s Special Event 2017

Apple’s homage to traditional watchmaking

What differentiated the first Apple Watch from earlier devices of its class wasn’t just the seamless interplay of hardware and software, but Apple’s unique ability to make new technology feel familiar. Unlike their early competitors, Apple had another critical ace up their sleeve: They built upon the familiarity of traditional wristwatches, combining it with the Apple design language they’d successfully established with iPod and iPhone.

Apple Watch (Copyright Apple Inc.)

Apple went a step further and adopted traditional horologic terms to describe parts of the user interface.

The Apple Watch is almost an homage to traditional watchmaking. Through the enduring nature of the Apple Watch’s design, Apple is perhaps saying that smartwatches should be a bit more timeless than their smartphone counterparts.

A change in perception

New products don’t replace one another as much as they change what those other products stand for. People who buy automatic watches aren’t buying an accessory, they’re buying pieces of history and craftsmanship. People who buy smartwatches aren’t buying a better way to look at time, they’re buying the idea of a healthier and better connected self.

Watches are evolving from nice-to-have tech gadgets for geeks into life-saving tools for ourselves and the people we love.

Smartwatches are redefining their own category just like Swatch did in the late 1980s. Whereas smartwatches used to be about staying connected, they’re now packed with habit-forming technology aimed at making you a healthier you. They’re evolving from nice-to-have tech gadgets for geeks into life-saving tools for ourselves and the people we love.

Looking to the future

Wristwatches have always been an extension of our bodies. With smartwatches becoming more powerful, and technology effectively merging with our bodies, we’re at the forefront of a new era of computing.

Leading A.I. based efforts @Google on Lens and Assistant. Creator of Mindful. Formerly @iA .

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