Unwinding The Swatch Group Smartwatch Announcement

The Swatch Group dropped a bombshell – in its staid way – announcing plans to release a smartwatch in the next three months, potentially to coincide with the April launch of the Apple Watch.

First, understand that watch companies don’t know how to market to tech consumers. As I wrote here, Swatch is an integral part in the haute horology industry, a sort of heavy base for the expensive Cloisonne vase of the higher end brands. But Swatch and its associated companies offer lifestyle, not tech. Every time they have, excepting a few very specific occasions including the excellent Tissot T-Touch line, they have floundered.

The news from Swatch is fairly limited. Essentially they’re proposing a simple smart watch focused on Windows and Android interoperability that can charge itself. How? Either through a rotating weight that will charge a very small internal battery or a linear weight that will bounce inside the case. This technology isn’t new – it has been tried multiple times and Ulyssee Nardin sort of used it in their Chairman cellphone line. Seiko has made a line called the Kinetic for decades utilizing a mechanical winder to charge a small battery.

The key here, however is that the kinetic energy generated by a swiftly moving weight is very limited. The energy transfer is enough to run a small watch battery but may not be enough to run a color screen. Therefore, Swatch is limited in its possible interfaces. But, generally, can it be done? With a solid enough partnership with a tech company it should be possible but difficult.

You’ll also note the dig at Apple. Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek said that the watch is launching in April, probably around the same time as the Apple Watch. He also said it would be designed for Android and Windows Phone, an obvious choice for a company placing itself directly at odds with a big competitor.

Will it work? I don’t know. All of the watch makers are going to try to build a smart watch this year. Montblanc is trying to have it both ways with their goofy smart bracelet while something called the MMT Horological Smartwatch Platform is appearing later this month that is aimed at making fancy watches smarter. In short, high-end horology is finally figuring out that they are in trouble.

We’ll have more info on the Swatch offering over the next few months but generally be prepared for a long – and confusing – battle ahead. It is the first major challenge to Switzerland in decades and it should be a wild ride.