Wristwatches in new avatar

It was such a strange hybrid of watch and algebraic calculator that calling it a mere watch or a calculator would not do it full justice. So HP called it a “wrist instrument.”
It was a commercial flop.

Years later, the cellphone would become an ubiquitous, multifunctional device that, incidentally, showed the time. As a result, many people younger than a certain age have never acquired the habit of wearing a wristwatch. That’s hardly news, but here’s what does surprise: HP and a few other companies are talking up wristwatches again, almost as if the cellphone had never appeared.

Last month at an HP event in Shanghai, Phil McKinney, the chief technology officer of the company’s personal systems group, displayed the MetaWatch, a prototype developed by Fossil that he described as the first generation of “the connected watch.”

This version has Bluetooth, but the long-term vision is to give it the wireless capability to be the hub of every Internet-ready portable device you own — phone, laptop, tablet. The MetaWatch would be “the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot on your wrist,”  McKinney said.

During an interview this month, he said that he gave a talk in 2006 about his conception of the “connected watch” of the future. At the time, wireless carriers were saying that all kinds of digital devices would join cellphones in having their own built-in wireless radios for connectivity.

Last year, McKinney said, he received a call from Fossil. Executives there had heard his 2006 presentation, had been captivated by the vision, and had set about building two prototype watches — one with hands and another with digital numbers.

 I told him that so little information could be displayed on the watch’s face — there is a small, scrollable window at the top and another one at the bottom. But he said it would be enough for alerts,  for example, “when you’ve got four  more e-mails, three Facebook updates and 10 Tweets.” He said buttons on the watch could be programmed to dispatch canned responses.

McKinney said that youngsters who are unaccustomed to wearing watches would still find the MetaWatch appealing.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst of the NPD Group, does not see the product’s appeal. The MetaWatch, he said, “was the right idea — five years ago.”

Over all, the casual-watch market in the United States has hardly shrivelled. According to NPD’s data, the industry had sales of about $2.35 billion in 2010, up 4 per cent from 2008. In those two years, sales were up 33 per cent within the 35-to-44 age group and 104 per cent for those 65 and older. Sales to the 18-to-24 age group, however, fell 29 per cent.

Catherine Moellering, executive vice president at Tobe, a retail consulting firm, does see a new interest in watches among 11-to-17-year-olds.

“The watch had disappeared so completely to these youngsters that today they could discover watches as if they had never been around before,” she said.

Watches have always been a fashion accoutrement as well as a utilitarian instrument.
Apple does not sell a watch, but you can buy watchband kits from LunaTik that are designed to hold a current-generation iPod Nano on the wrist. But the Nano has no wireless capabilities.

Another company, Allerta, has a Bluetooth-enabled watch that can be programmed to show alerts and brief text messages — not unlike those imagined by McKinney — that draw upon a nearby smartphone or PC.

But do we need alerts? Messages are coming into our smartphones — we know that without having to check. So wearing a second device to tell us to look at the first device seems superfluous.

Such a watch will supply information about information. Meta indeed. 

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