Apple is finally delivering on the watches it launched some months back. It was a historical launch as it was the first major new Apple product line since the passing of Steve Jobs. Much has been published about this new product line and even Jony Ives (chief designer and others at Apple) had intimated that the new Apple watch will seriously challenge the Swiss watch industry.
The last time the Swiss watch industry went through an unprecedented sea change was when the Quartz movement was developed and made into mainstream watch designs, brands and marketing. In the beginning the first generation of quartz was astronomically expensive but as production cost of the movement was reduced, the pricing dropped dramatically. In the 70s the quartz movement sold extremely well because not only was it affordable but it was far more accurate than the mechanical watches sold back then. Due to the quartz development, many Swiss brands suffered huge losses over time. Some even had to cut their losses by reducing production and move over to quartz movement to remain viable.
Will the new Smart Watches have the same impact on the watch industry as the quartz movement? Smart watch developers, it seems, hope it will.
The premise of such hope depends on the market having remained unchanged between 70s all through to 2015.
What has changed in the course of the past four decades? Watch buyers today buy watches with a different decision matrix - i.e. statements of fashion, functional devices, status symbols or statements of personality. No longer is the main premise to be absolute accuracy. Most have discovered too that quartz movements have a limited lifetime, not just having to replace the batteries but that there are real wear and tear issues and quartz movements cannot be repaired (unless at an exorbitant rate) and usually replaced. Replacement is only possible when that quartz movement is still in production or at least available. As a result, most brands today market their quartz watches as low cost, disposable items unlikely to last no more than 5-10 years. Even though the quartz movement remains today with many brands, it has seen its zenith of popularity and importance many years ago. It has its place in the Watch Industry but no longer considered desirable as a preferred movement.
From the mid 90s the Swiss mechanical watch industry saw a renaissance due to the growth of the internet. The new electronic communications environment introduced a means for people to learn about mechanical watch movements and to appreciate good quality timepieces - especially those of vintage pedigree quality. With the popularity of forums and growth in numbers of enthusiasts, the fuel was lit and the growth of understanding, appreciation and demand for good quality, well made, beautifully designed timepieces has not abated until recently. Since early years of this decade, many observers had bemoaned the inflating prices of luxury watches had gotten out of hand (maybe this timing is perfect for Apple!). Nevertheless, the essence of the growth of the Swiss luxury watches was mainly from informed consumers who not only wanted and demanded for quality mechanical timepieces, but was willing to pay a premium for them - hence the ''luxury" segment.
Even non collectors today when considering buying a timepiece, they will default into a common decision making process. Buyers generally do not need a watch because almost everyone carries a phone or a smartphone that not only tells the time but a lot more information provided by the calendar function. Yet, buyers of watches have specific needs. e.g. need for a dress watch to compliment dinner wear; a sports watch for outdoor activity or lifesytle (whether a Casio G Shock or a Steel Mechanical Diver); or a gift that is expected to last a lifetime.
Mechanical watches - when made well - promises to last a long time. In most cases, more than a lifetime. It does one thing and one thing well but often not worn just for that one thing - to tell time - but to convey a sense of well being of ownership to the wearer. Whether it was a gift, or a purchase to commemorate a milestone, or even as mundane as wanting to be associated with a status. Mechanical watches today represent a value of a time long gone. When things were made with love, attention to great detail, and reparable. Most buyers who are ready to spend large amounts of their hard earned money hope to buy a product with the characteristics that reflects the price paid. The Design, Quality of Materials, Quality of Finishing. For many, an additional factor is branding value (sometimes its their primary factor).
Accordingly, for Smart Watches to become the new deriguer of wrist wear, these current purchasing behaviour has to evolve to different purchasing decision processes. The most primary factor pundits failed to understand about mechanical watch market is that buyers often do not buy watches for functionality.
Fortunately, the Smart Watch success will not be at the cost of Swiss Mechanical Watch industry. While there may be some issue at the entry level market for luxury Swiss mechanical watches, those who are in the market for mid to top tier luxury brands will not see any impact.
Smart Watches by their description are multifunction devices. Unfortunately, today's smartwatches are predominantly designed to work in conjunction with a smart phones to enhance its use rather than being devices capable with it's own independent functions. This may effectively be its main problem. Why would a consumer who has a mechanical watch on his wrist with a smartphone in his pocket need or wish to have another watch to simply make his smartphone easier to use? Add on to the problem of short battery power life of a smartwatch requiring daily recharge to the current tedium of recharging smartphones. Smart tech consumers already know that each new smart tech technology is not upgradeable and will have a fixed limited life of no longer than 2 years.
However, Smart Watches have the capacity to become the product of this decade. It's true success will be it becoming the first true wearable technology. But Apple's Smartwatch future is not assured. The failure of Google Glass as a mainstream wearable tech product has shown that the promise of functionality must be delivered with products that not only work but will work seemlessly and be reliable.
In the long term, the best case scenario for Smart Watches (as it stands today), is that it will be like quartz watches - i.e. part of the solar system of watches (and even possibly replace the segment in the market covered by quartz movement).
In the long term worst case scenario, it will become redundant and product failure (as was the Newton was for Apple until they figured out iPhone) because it merely provided features that only a small segment wanted or desired.
But the future may look far more positive if the wearable tech developers refrain from marketing their wearable tech as Watches - because technically they are not watches. They are multifunction devices that happen to tell time. They should design wearable technology and have them marketed as Smart Wrist Wear or Smart Wrist Device that compliments mechanical watches on the other wrist. New tech should not displace what is important to the customer. It should enhance it or compliment it.