Watch Out . . .

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2001-03-19 Print this article Print

Pocket watches are back in fashion. You just might not think of them as watches.

Pocket watches are back in fashion. You just might not think of them as watches.

In the train conductor era, the pocket watch was round and smooth and was chained to ones clothing, so it could always be retrieved easily.

Nowadays, we talk on them. Theyre called cell phones.

The latest generation of cell phones are so small they slip into any pocket without creating a bump in ones pants or any discernible impression on ones thigh.

They also tell time better than those clocks you were used to wearing on your wrist.

Every day, they check their time, just like that new generation of radio-controlled wristwatches. The best feature for the road warrior is that they sync with local time zones. When you seek service in a new locale, the phone automatically updates its timekeeping to reflect the new zone. No more being late for breakfast in New York because your watch is on Denver time and says its still 6:30 a.m.

In fact, the ubiquity of other electronic devices that keep time may mean that the first portable device to fall victim to the era of proliferating portable devices is . . . the watch.

Forget whats sitting in your pocket, waiting to be called upon. Look in front of your nose. That computer screen will tell you the time without you raising a limb. Just set it for Eastern time and youll never be behind the game.

Then, theres all the ambient timekeeping that surrounds us. Office clocks, convenience store clocks, bank clocks, alarm clocks. With so many substitutes for the wristwatch, we may still seek respite from chronological pressure.

So far, the effect on the world watch industry is negligible. Swiss manufacturers last year exported 29.9 million watches, about 4.6 percent less than in 1999. Worldwide production of finished watches was pretty much stable, at 500 million units, from 1998 to 1999. Its way too early to declare the death of the wristwatch, but its days of indispensability are over.

Indeed, as cell phones, computers and personal digital assistants encroach on its turf, the humble watch is trying to fight back.

Watch manufacturers are increasingly trying to turn their products into what Citizen Watch terms "wearable information terminal devices."

Thats a wristful. But take a look at the onHand PC watch from Matsucom. This is the Baskin-Robbins idea of a watch: It comes with more than 30 applications preinstalled. You read that right: applications.

There are calendar, to-do list, address and other personal information management capabilities; multiple types of watches and timers; a calculator; four games. You can sync up your watch with ACT!, Goldmine qnd Microsoft Outlook. Pretty soon, youll be paying bills and checking all your vital signs while youre at it — maybe even playing the stock market.

After all, theres now the Timex Internet Messenger watch. This timepiece keeps time to the second, thanks to the SkyTel Communications paging network, and can receive news alerts, sports scores and even e-mail messages.

But it cant hold a candle, at least in one respect, to the Breitling Professional B-1. Then again, no run-of-the-mill watch can keep up with this $2,550 gewgaw. This watch boasts not one, but two digital displays through which you access other features, such as the alarm, calendar, chronograph and countdown timer. But its hallmark feature is that it is "NVG compatible." So, just in case youre wearing night-vision goggles, you mercenary you, you can still see what time it is. Not quite sure who demanded this feature, but there you have it.

Somehow, this seems like technological overkill — and it isnt likely to save the patient long-term. This doesnt seem quite to fit Bill Gates original vision of information at your fingertips — unless he meant too much information.

Now Microsofts most-famous billionaire probably would argue that natural evolution will demand the perfection of the wrist-top computer.

Save the investment. The wristwatch is one portable device whose time has passed.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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