If Apple's new watch guru feels the same way about smartwatches as his former TAG Heuer boss does, then he knows he'll face serious challenges in positioning the iWatch as a sophisticated wrist accessory with mainstream appeal.
On Friday the world learned that Patrick Pruniaux just left his position as TAG Heuer's Vice President of Global Sales and Retail. He now works for Apple--presumably to help craft a marketing story around the presumptive iWatch. Pruniaux's departure strikes me as particularly curious, because I've been asking executives at luxury watch brands to share their thoughts on the smartwatch market, and some of the most pointed criticism comes from Stephane Linder, TAG Heuer CEO.
"None impress me in terms of design," Linder told me, referring to smartwatches from Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm and Pebble. "They look like cheap, plastic-designed watches. In the luxury category, we work on every detail for crafted value. When I see the smartwatch, it's interesting, but in terms of design, it looks like a cheap wrist computer. There's not one that makes a great connection."
Cheap. Down-market. Too geeky for fashion-conscious consumers. These are the criticisms lobbed at smartwatches by executives at traditional luxury wristwatch brands. It's clear that even Apple, the epitome of tasteful gadget design, will need a talent like Pruniaux to resolve the intrinsic nerdiness of a watch manufactured in Taiwan and defined not by moving hands, but a 2.5-inch digital display.
Still, some watch company executives see glimmers of hope in today's smartwatch offerings, and Linder himself doesn't categorically rule out the possibility of a Swiss-made, TAG Heuer smartwatch some day.
Can you feel the hand of people in it?
If there's a common complaint among wristwatch aficionados, it's that today's smartwatches lack the cues of fine craftsmanship, and borrow too much design DNA from pure consumer electronics. Linder, for one, says he'd like to see smartwatches with much more steel and a higher quality of finishing, "like you can feel the hand of people in it."
Scott B. Wolfe, senior vice president for merchandising, design and product development at Citizen Watch, is another skeptic. Citizen has already dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters with its Proximity model, an extremely technical-looking analog chronograph that provides bare-bones phone notifications via a second hand that sweeps to either a "MAIL" or "CALL" label on its dial. But Wolfe says none of today's smartwatches embrace "aspirational design"--a look that says something about one's personal interests, whether that be sailing, car racing, or just a basic appreciation for precision micro-machinery or the finer things in life.
"From a design aesthetic, all these things look too much like gadgets, and not enough like timepieces," Wolfe says. "The Galaxy Gear, personally, I don't like the design. The case with the screws--been there, done that. They integrated the strap into the case, which looks a little cheap. This is almost what Dick Tracy's watch looked like in the 40s and 50s, and that's not ground-breaking."
Thierry Casias, the creative director at Bulova, is a bit more kind to Samsung's smartwatches than other watch industry VIPs are. He says the original Galaxy Gear did a good job in marrying a tech aesthetic to details that are already familiar to wristwatch customers--for example, a textured wristband. Still, Casias has doubts about the crossover appeal of most of the smartwatches he's seen.
"Most favor the streamlined, clean aesthetic made popular by Apple, but this look will only appeal to gadget geeks," Casias says. "The average person who already carries at least one device at all times--a smartphone, an MP3 player, etcetera--probably wants to downplay this piece of equipment. No one wants to wear a Star Trek prop."
Linder was the harshest smartwatch critic I interviewed, but still concedes that the Samsungs, Motorolas and LGs of the world are at an immediate disadvantage because their operating systems don't allow them to leverage analog dials, "the one component that says luxury" to prospective buyers. "If you go for purely digital, you don't have the feeling of the mechanical instrument," Linder says. "So maybe the question will be, Can you make a dial that looks like a dial, with hands like a real watch?"
Circling the path of least resistance
In fact, besides Citizen's Proximity, we've already seen analog-dial wristwatches with rudimentary smart functions from Martian and Cogito. But these models definitely don't bear dials, cases and straps that scream a luxury aesthetic. The next best option, it seems, is to go with a round LCD display, so at least your digital watchface will resemble the majority of luxury watches sold today. That's the Motorola approach, and it's a design choice that works for Citizen's Wolfe and Bulova's Casias.
"I think they're going down the path of least resistance," Wolfe says of the Moto 360's circular display. "Ninety percent of the watches that we sell are round. So if you're immediately starting off with a non-round shape, that's not a winning strategy." Wolfe praises the Moto 360's "clean look" and chamfered bezel. He says, overall, Motorola has done the best job as far as pure design aesthetics, but wants to reserve final judgement until he can feel the Moto 360's materials, and put the watch on his wrist.
Casias gives the Moto 360 his top smartwatch design honors as well. "It's by far the best looking one of the bunch," he says. "The aesthetic is minimal and modern, and really conveys the upscale feel of some popular brands on the pricier end of things."
Beyond the Moto 360, only the Pebble Steel was singled out among the wristwatch traditionalists for successful design. Wolfe says Pebble has "done a very nice job" by incorporating traditional leather and steel straps, and noted that the Pebble Steel's barrel shape provides a small though notable point of interest in a field of smartwatches defined by rectangles. Casias, meanwhile, says the Pebble Steel "isn't exactly attractive," but is the second most wearable smartwatch of the ones he's seen.
Cutting-edge features vs. timeless appeal
If there's anything I learned from my interviews with the watch company executives, it's that they're operating in a completely different universe, with different rules of order, relative to the consumer electronics companies. Both camps produce things we put on our wrists, and these things display information a user might find relevant. But these are just trivial, incidental similarities.
Each industry must respect completely different pricing rules: A smartwatch can't reasonably cost more than a $300 smartphone, while a luxury wristwatch can cost a year's salary.
And each industry must respect completely different product cycles: The electronics industry embraces planned obsolescence, and that applies to everything from silicon chips to style trends. But a luxury watch must have timeless appeal.
And each industry must respect a completely different marketing narrative. For smartwatches, it's all about functions, features, utility, productivity, and the next step in mobile computing. For luxury watches, the focus really isn't even on telling the time. It's about telling the world what kind of person you are via the loaded symbolism of a white-gold finish or a dial once preferred by Steve McQueen.
Yet smartwatches are here. They're buzz-worthy. And the luxury timepiece market is taking notice, even if its manufacturers never intend to directly compete with the gadget companies for an ever-dwindling audience of people who will strap things to their wrists.
Wolfe says smartwatches should bring renewed interest to all types of watches, but Citizen remains fully committed to its Eco-Drive technology, a proprietary platform that uses ambient light to power its watches. This all but relegates Citizen to analog watchfaces for power-consumption reasons. And beyond that, Citizen would never align with, say, a Google because the company doesn't "like to depend on third-party software people who may not be fully invested," Wolfe says.
Ironically, it's Linder of TAG Heuer who's more open to a world of smartwatch possibilities. His company has already dabbled in the smartwatch space with a limited run of Aquaracer AC72 models designed specifically for the World Cup sailing efforts of Oracle Team USA. These watches--just 50 were produced in total--eschewed moving hands entirely, and used a simple monochrome display to report sailing metrics like wind direction and intensity.
So it's not like TAG Heuer has been completely antagonistic to the forward march of digital technology. Besides producing the limited-run Aquaracer, Linder says his team has studied smartwatches from Samsung and other manufacturers; this is certainly an exercise that should be helpful to the defector Pruniaux as he tries to elevate Apple's iWatch above the smartwatch fray. It's just that Linder and company aren't going to sacrifice style and simplicity to reach what is essentially a different market of consumers.
"What could be a luxury smartwatch?" Linder asks. "What type of features? This is something we brainstorm. And if we find something, we could try it. But I don't see us taking a big risk, unless we find a way to make luxury watches looking like real luxury watches that provide very easy-to-use, smart information that isn't complicated--and don't just replicate the mobile phone."