The Rise of the Smart Watch?

In the article, "The Wristwatch May Be Making a Comeback, but With Some Smarts" Nick Bilton of the New York Times states that millennials do not wear wristwatches. Instead, they use their smart phones to tell time.  His overview of emerging smart watch products asks whether wrist-based devices wirelessly linked to our smart phones will "save" the wrist watch.  In closing, he quotes a tweet from a Google partner stating that nobody really needs a watch.   

I read this with some bewilderment. Granted, as an aging Gen-Xer the only way I know what kids are doing is to read about it in the New York Times, so I take pronouncements such as this with a grain of salt.  Young people now reach into their pockets to tell time on a large hand held device?  Great.  After 100 years, they have rediscovered the pocket watch.  I suppose this is not entirely crazy.  After all, there was a time when pocket watches were king.  Even after 1900 when movements became small enough to wear on a bracelet, these wristlets were a woman's fashion item, not a proper man's time piece. World War One changed that.  It was one thing to fumble in your waistcoat to check the time while standing on a street corner, but quite another to do so under fire in a trench. Thus, wire lugs were welded to pocket watches, which were secured to the wrist with a leather strap, and the men's wristwatch was born, or so the story goes.

If I were selling the idea of a smart watch, I would tell that story and proclaim the inevitable evolution of the smart phone from pocket device to wrist device, but I would be wrong.  Watches moved from the pocket to the wrist because people needed the information the device provided, and the device could do so just as efficiently in its new, more convenient location.  Millennials made a similar discovery, that the more useful device they already carried (the phone) did the job of the now redundant device their parents had strapped to their wrists.  Creating a less useful version of your smart phone that you can wear on your wrist completely misses the point.  Quite simply, smart watch manufacturers are looking in the wrong direction.

So if smart phones are better, is the wristwatch dead, or doomed to be a curiosity like the vinyl record album?  I think not.  For one thing, I don't believe they are actually endangered.  I have been surprised by the number of young watch enthusiasts I have encountered online.  The proliferation of independent watchmakers and microbrands tells me the market for wristwatches is rather robust.  It is not just my imagination.  According to MarketWatch, watch sales are up significantly since their low in 2009, and rising.

We wear wristwatches to tell time, but honestly, there is no shortage of clocks in our world. There are those who work in remote or harsh environments for whom the right watch is vital, but the vast majority of us wear watches as accessories. They say something about who we are, or at least who we want to be.  Watches are a form of jewelry both for men and women.  Regardless of whether we choose a Timex or a Rolex, the watch is a part of our persona.  For some of us, they are something even more special. We appreciate intricate wizardry beneath the deceptively simple dials and displays, and revere their history. Watches are just plain cool. 

If an otherwise watch-free millennial buys a smart watch, he might do so because it shows the world that he is tech-savvy early adopter, or because he likes the status and sleek sci-fi look. He might buy it because he appreciates the complex technology beneath its skin that produces information from thin air like magic.  Essentially, he will buy it because he thinks its a pretty cool watch, and that will make him one of us.  In a couple years when his cell contract runs out and his smart watch/phone becomes obsolete, he may even graduate to a real watch and leave the multifunction communications duty to the device he already has in his pocket.  I am sure this is not the future Sony, Samsung, or Apple have in mind, but it is a good future for us.



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