does your CIO need a smartwatch?

Listen to the pundits and you'll know smartwatches are the Next Big Thing, but are they really useful or just an exec toy?

Apple, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony, Pebble and others have developed smartwatches, partly because watch faces seem well suited to use as a display and possibly because the mobile phone industry is reaching saturation and they need new markets to explore.

It’s not as if we are unused to wearing a timepiece. The Swiss watch industry exported 28 million timepieces in 2013, generating $23 billion in revenues, says FHS.

what do they do?

Traditional watches do one thing well – they tell the time. Consumer electronics manufacturers want that real estate (the wrist) and will offer time in addition to messages, email, navigation, music and more. Major watch brands such as Timex, Fossil and Swatch recognize they have a fight on their hands and plan their own smartwatches.

The current crop of wearables, priced between $150-$300, are designed to be companion products for smartphone and tablet owners. While they have some autonomous features any form of connected intelligence requires they be linked up to a second mobile device.

The smartwatch isn't a phone replacement, but a phone companion that lets you do such things like check mail and notifications, make and receive calls (with your phone), make payments and get directions.

In the short term, sales of smartwatches are likely to be inhibited by price and because most of their functionality duplicates the smartphone in your hand.

sophistication, elegance, smartwatch?

Euromonitor analyst Sulabh Madhwal observes most smartphone users come from a younger demographic, but: "Most high and even aspirational, mid watches are marketed towards middle-aged professionals or business owners who have a keen understanding of the watch’s heritage and strengths," he writes.

The question is: will smarphone owning execs lust after a modestly priced smartwatch or will the allure of an Swiss automatic dive watch, pressurized to 2000m below sea level, be too appealing? Perhaps they may want both.

looking good

Unfortunately, the first generation of smartwatches like the Pebble do lack a little wrist appeal.  Motorola senior exec Mark Randall told Trusted Reviews he thought most of the current crop were “pretty crappy” – obviously not his company’s soon to be launched Motorola 360. A swathe of second-generation watches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2 and the soon-to-ship Apple Watch will bring more features and style.

Style matters. For instance, the Motorola 360 harks back to traditional watch styling although the face is only an LED representation of a dial. Stylistically, it’s more Danish minimalism that Swiss elegance.

One smartwatch you couldn’t call an ugly duckling is the  Withings Activite. Announced at IFA it may not have all the tricks of an Apple Watch but it is made in Switzerland by Swiss watch makers and you can wear it swimming. It’s an appealing companion piece to the Withings Health Mate application. It will cost under $400 when it goes on sale but the battery is not rechargeable and will need replacing after a year.

high status

Perhaps the problem with the smartwatch is that while it may ape the traditional wristwatch, many execs love the status symbol of a Rolex or Omega on their wrist. There is a whole language of watch design conveying different messages from, “I’m so successful and confident I can afford to be obscure” to the James Bond wannabes.  Somewhere there is an exec who has always been dreaming of sporting a $20,000 watch forged from a volcano.

Perhaps Apple Watch Edition, with an 18 carat gold case and polished sapphire crystal display, will be successful in the category of $2000+ watches. It certainly looks the part.

One thing that traditional automatic chronographs offer that smartwatches do not, is longevity. Luxury watches are built to last, the antithesis of consumer electronic products that depend on our ability to grow bored of a toy before it breaks.

So whether the exec chooses smartwatch or luxury watch – or both - may come down to price. Ironically, most smartwatches with price tags around $200-$400 may be too cheap to offer the wrist action aspirational executives are looking for. 

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.