When Tradition Watch Manufacturers Treat Smartwatches Like Traditional Watches

There has been some buzz (at least in horology circles) about Tag Heuer’s smartwatch. It is, after all, the first serious attempt by a traditional watch manufacturer to release a smartwatch. But things weren’t off to a good start when the initial price of $1,400 was announced and things only looked worse when Tag Heuer announced a price increase. While there are a few models of the Apple Watch that exceed that price range most smartwatches come in far under what Tag Heuer is asking.

Now the price is settled at $1,500. What does $1,500 get you? You’d think it would get you some of the most cutting edge technology a company could cram into a smartwatch. Instead if gets you the same internals you would get for $150:

There was always a question of how much technology you would get for this $1,500, and unfortunately, it seems that the device has mostly normal smartwatch guts. There’s a 1.5-inch, circular 360×360 (240 PPI) LCD, 1GB of RAM, 4GB of storage, Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi (802.11n) and a 410mAh battery. The one unique item is the processor: a 1.6Ghz dual-core Intel Atom Z34XX. It’s hard to not be disappointed by the LCD when the $350 Huawei Watch clocks in at a superior 286 PPI.

Here’s the problem I see with traditional watch manufacturers trying to enter the smartwatch market. Traditional watch manufacturers are used to selling a luxury product that can last a lifetime. $1,500 can get you a really nice mechanical watch that you will probably pass down to your children. Smartwatches aren’t mechanical watches. Whereas you still have a functional mechanical watch after five years a smartwatch after the same period of time is likely to be little more than a pile of outdated circuits connected to a dead battery. You may pass it down to your children but only because you don’t want to give them something valuable until they’re old enough not to break it by falling off of a jungle gym.

I think it’s going to be difficult for traditional watch manufacturers to enter the smartwatch market without changing up their business model a bit. Why would somebody want to fork out $1,500 to Tag Heuer instead of 1/10th of that to Motorola for basically the same thing? With the exception of people who have brand loyalty to Tag Heuer they’re not. That’s because they’re going to dump their smartwatch in a year or two for the newer model with more powerful and power efficient hardware.

There’s certainly room for a premium product but what qualifies something as a premium electronic device is different than a mechanical watch. When people pay a premium for an electronic device they tend to expect more power, features, and attention to details. Graphics cards are a great example of this. You can spend a lot of money on a graphics card but when you reach that premium top tier you’re getting some cutting edge hardware that you can reasonably expect to run the latest games at ridiculously high resolutions with all of the fancy features turned on. Apple products are an example where users will pay a premium for attention to detail. Making a laptop body out of a solid brick of aluminum, designing a professional workstation in the footprint of a cylinder, and releasing an all-in-one computer that’s almost thin enough to cut paper is appreciated by enough people to command a premium.

So what can a traditional watch manufacturer offer the smartwatch market? To start with their bread and butter: attention to detail. Let’s consider the watch face, which is arguably what most smartwatch users will be looking at throughout the day. Tag Heuer decided recreating watch faces from its mechanical lines was the way to go. But, in my opinion, it was done in a half-assed manner. The watch faces look like a Dashboard (because it’s all but forgotten, Dashboard is a layer in OS X where users can add small widgets) clock widget. For $1,500 Tag Heuer could have included motion sensors sensitive enough to know the wearer’s exact orientation. Combining that with location and time information obtained form the phone and you could add in realistic outdoor shadows under the watch hands and from the side of the case to create the illusion of depth. Assuming the user is inside the watch could use light sensors to detect where light is coming from and provide a similar illusion. Another idea would be to use a series of backlight LEDs instead of a single LED. Theoretically they could allow the watch to only turn on the LEDs behind the parts of the watch with lume to provide a similar night lighting to an actual watch. Of course all of this would look much better on a high resolution screen, which should be doable at that price point.

Traditional watch manufacturers can play in the smartwatch market but doing so seriously will require more than releasing the same product as everybody else with a different name attached to it.