Is time running out for the watch?

Clocks on mobile phones and computer screens suggest that traditional timepieces are obsolete. Our technology guru Rhodri Marsden argues that there's always a place for a watch face – as long as it's stylish

Tuesday 25 January 2011 01:00

My own watch is battered, scratched and held together with the aid of three 50mm elastic bands. It's a bit of an inelegant solution. The strap tends to fall off whenever I accidentally bash it against a hard surface, but there's a bloke in my local market who reattaches it for me for four quid, which is probably a rip-off but it's a long-standing arrangement that I don't have the heart to break. It's got an hour hand and minute hand – as you'd hope – and a second hand, too; it can't tell me the date, but it is "5 bar," which apparently means it could operate under 40m of water (an attribute that's unlikely to be tested unless I fall drunkenly off the side of a boat). But it's much loved, much fidgeted with, and assists me whenever I'm catching trains, keeping appointments or getting annoyed when people fail to show up when they said they would. If I can't find my watch, I get a bit distressed. If I leave the house without it, I immediately have a nagging sensation that something is wrong. I feel ill-equipped to deal with life. Without my watch, I feel a bit nude.

Having said that, I'd grudgingly admit that my watch doesn't do anything that my mobile phone can't – and that's another item that's firmly bonded to my person. My phone is more than capable of showing me the time; I just have to press a button. It doesn't tell me the number of seconds, sure, but that's never a problem unless I'm timing a boiled egg, which I'm generally not. My phone effectively renders my watch superfluous, except as a decorative object – and this is a realisation that dawned on the younger generation quite a while ago.

A survey conducted by Mintel last autumn showed that under-25s are twice as likely as the rest of us to have jettisoned their watches and assigned any timekeeping duties to their phones instead. More of us own a mobile phone these days (91 per cent) than own a watch (86 per cent), with one in seven of us feeling, on reflection, that we could probably do without wearing a watch altogether.

Statistically, the person most likely to be wearing a watch right now is a woman over the age of 55; in a few decades' time, perhaps watches will become obsolete. Pointing to your wrist to ask the time could be as dated a gesture as tipping your hat.

But while the traditional function of the wristwatch is neutered by the ability of other gadgets to tell us the time, its form and its style certainly aren't. While sales of watches overall are flatlining, the market for cheap timepieces is growing; that's to be expected in a time of economic uncertainty, but those who keep at least one eye on the fashion blogs won't fail to have noticed the brow-furrowing trend of toting multiple watches simultaneously; girls wearing them layered like bangles, boys eliminating the possibility of checking the wrong wrist by having a watch on each. No trend quite exposes the devaluation of the watch's role as a timekeeper as this one.

Watches are still adored by who have a few grand to chuck about, too. Fashion house Balenciaga recently unveiled their wristwatch collection designed by Nicolas Ghesquière, with straps in "python", "crocodile" or "lizard", and which come in at a cool $1,400 (£880). Watches by the likes of Rolex or Cartier still double as timepieces and copper-bottomed investment opportunities, while a Swiss watch brand such as Jacob & Co only needs to have its creations photographed while they're wrapped around the supple wrists of Kim Kardashian for tongues to start wagging and their products to become sought after once again.

If anyone can be relied upon to provide a colossal, flashing signpost to the current favoured excesses of the wealthy and privileged, it's probably Kanye West; he recently chose to design a watch that features a likeness of himself – complete with sunglasses, naturally – picked out in diamonds and gold. It set him back $180,000. Kanye doesn't need to tell the time; he has people to do that kind of thing for him. But he still wears a watch.

"Men will never lose that Meccano mentality," says Robert Johnston, associate editor of GQ. "Swiss quality watches are objects of incredible beauty; little men on Swiss mountains spend their life hand-polishing screws that are barely visible to the naked eye, and there's something incredibly sexy about that." But the horizontally-arranged mainspring barrels and tourbillon regulators in, say, "The Quenttin" watch by Jacob & Co seem to me to be the direct counterparts of the "Miracle Broth" that scientists rigorously evaluate in each batch of Creme de la Mer moisturiser, or the 600Hz subfield motion in pricey plasma televisions. Untold research and technical skill goes into each (although I'm personally inclined to be less impressed by the Miracle Broth), but the ultimate status comes with the price tag of the finished product. The enhanced accuracy that a tourbillon regulator might give my watch (if my watch had one) obviously wouldn't help me arrive at a party any more promptly, but nor would it make me any more of a hit at the party when I arrived.

The wow-factor of wrist-mounted technical wizardry has been eclipsed by the phone in our pocket; the "complications" that watchmakers cram into timepieces with such supreme skill – the Easter date and moon-phase calculators, the compasses and barometers – are, sadly, less impressive than a smartphone app that records everything you say in your sleep.

For many years the most expensive watch in the world was the impossibly intricate Supercomplication by Patek Phillipe, a pocket watch made in 1932 with 24 complications and 900 parts. That was, however, effortlessly outstripped when Chopard produced a watch with 163 carats of white and yellow diamonds stuck on the front that sold for $25m. Enough said. It's all about the bling.

This surely leaves digital timepieces with nowhere to go. To be honest, the digital watches that friends of mine had at school that were able to add, subtract, multiply, divide and display the current time in Hong Kong were never more than superficially impressive. But as components become smaller and more powerful, the temptation to pack more and more functionality into a wristwatch-sized device becomes incredibly tempting to technology companies.

For years, the industry has wrestled with the idea of convergence; exactly how much should you pack into one gadget? Enabling a satnav to play mp3s or an mp3 player to give you a close-run game of Scrabble presents no technological problems whatsoever. But are they really the best vehicles? Having the time easily and quickly visible on your wrist will always be useful (although, if you're glancing at it while wondering "how much longer will this person keep talking at me," be sure, they will notice you doing it).

But if the existence of the £50 watch is really being threatened by the mobile phone, how about incorporating that mobile phone technology into the watch itself?

This isn't a new concept. Ever since Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy, equipped the detective with a 2-Way Wrist Radio in a comic strip on January 13 1946, possessing a real one became a dormant ambition embedded within the minds of geeky boys – boys who inevitably ended up working for the world's big technology companies. Samsung have had repeated (although slightly half-hearted) stabs at launching one, the first being the catchily-named SPH-WP10 back in 1999, with further teasers at technology fairs at 2001 and 2003. But it's only now that the idea seems to be gaining traction.

The online forum at giffgaff, the O2-backed mobile network whose development and expansion is partly driven by its own customers, buzzed sufficiently on the subject for a competition to emerge to design the phone-watch of the future, while a Nottingham-based firm, Swap (Smart Watches and Phones) has seen itself expand rapidly since its launch in 2008. Its sWaP Rebel watch, with its rubber strap, touch screen, mini stylus and USB port, was stocked in Harrods and was picked out as a cool stocking filler last Christmas; perhaps unsurprisingly, one of its directors, Peter Theo, has commented that "the watch isn't dead, it's just evolving".

Swap's fortunes will have been done no harm by the appearance of the new iPod nano, a cute mp3 player in Apple's range that was unveiled back in September and is the size and shape of a wristwatch face. The presence of an analogue clock on the device's lock screen only emphasises the similarity, and when CEO Steve Jobs casually mentioned as an aside that an Apple board member intended to wear it as a watch, that was enough for yet another small industry to piggyback on the popularity of an Apple product. Cheap and cheerful wristbands were hurriedly launched by companies such as Griffin, while more sophisticated offerings started to show up on design blogs. A company called MNML Studio sought investment via the website for two wristbands that promised to transform the iPod nano into the "world's coolest multitouch watch"; it ended up becoming the highest funded project in Kickstarter's history. Digital trickery on the wrist is still an enticing prospect, clearly.

But how well does it work in practice? The one obvious boon of having our digital lives encased in a wrist-mounted gadget is that we're much less likely to lose it; it's bound to us, literally. But when the website Engadget reviewed the iPod nano as a watch, it didn't score particularly highly.

Firstly it's quite big (although if you're a bloke that's probably less of an issue.) Secondly, you can't just glance at the time – you have to wake up the screen first, which can ultimately get a bit irritating. And if you want to listen to music – which is, after all, the point of the iPod nano – a cable running from your ears to your wrist isn't the best ergonomic solution; fling your arm out to hail a bus and your headphones ping out of your ear. It's perhaps telling that the aforementioned watch design competition on the giffgaff forum was won by a circular pocket watch rather than something that sits on the wrist. Of course, the technology industry will eventually get the period of experimentation out of its system and establish what does and doesn't work.

Leading the way, perhaps, is Sony Ericsson's Live View, much cooed over on technology blogs; it's just a wrist-mounted remote control that allows you to check out what's going on on your phone without having to reach into your bag or your pocket. Essentially just a wireless bridge, nothing more. But deemed to be very cool.

"When quartz was introduced, everyone thought that Swiss quality watches were dead," says Robert Johnston. "But then the industry asked themselves a question: what is a watch for? And they realised that it's not for telling the time." So, kids might have briefly fallen out of love with watches. But ultimately, if something looks good, or if it does something vaguely useful, we'll strap it to our wrist. At the very least, it breaks up the uniform monotony of our hand, wrist and arm. That's got to count for something.

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