Watching the watch men

How are wristwatch manufacturers fighting back against mobile phones - all of which incorporate time-keeping? E&T clocks the latest in high-tech watches.

Tell a young person you're buying them a watch for Christmas and you're likely to get a bemused look. Watches are so last-generation. Fewer people wear them because mobile phones appear to have usurped the role of time keeper. Come to think of it, people who still refer to them as 'mobile' phones are probably showing their age, too.

But watches are making a comeback. Not that young people are suddenly rich enough for an Omega or a Rolex, far from it - they're as affected by the world recession as anyone. No, they are finding watches in another category - the watch that does more than tell the time: the smartwatch, or, as we oldies might call it: the gadget.

Government figures bear out the apparent decline of the watch industry. According to ProComm, the number of watches - electronically-operated wrist watches with a case of precious metal or metal clad with precious metal with a mechanical display only, including stopwatches - was 414,017,000 in 2004 and 290,363,000 in 2007 (although the figure rose in 2006). That's not the whole story; the value of the market rose from £19,184,000 in 2004 to £64,025,000 in 2007.

So the market data is clear - people are buying fewer watches but spending an awful lot more on them (those figures do, however, predate the current recession). One possibility is that people are spending more because the watches themselves can do more.

Gadgets for all...

It's not just the gadget enthusiast buying these devices, though. Earlier this year, the Swap Watch, probably the ultimate gadget, came to market. The sample examined for E&T was bulky, but it contained a great deal of functionality. A fully functioning analogue-looking dial gives way to a multimedia interface at the touch of a side button so it will play music and even show video.

There is a memory card slot to store these files, but better yet there is also a slot for a standard SIM card. The watch, which is fully Bluetooth compliant, is also a wearable phone. Oh, and it has a camera, too.

So far, most people would agree that these are bound to be bought by males either in their teens/early 20s or some way into their mid-life crisis.

London-based Swap Watch, however, disagrees. It is poised to introduce models for both sexes and the age range spans a wide spectrum. A new model - the Signature - is more elegant and watch-like, and should increase the appeal even further.

The entry of LG into the market with its GD910, which was announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show and is due out later this year, could consolidate the market further with an LG-sized marketing budget and, even more importantly, a tiny camera that makes it possible to have a video call from your wrist. Yes, like in 'Thunderbirds'!

Function heaven

Other electronic watches have different functions. Visitors to can have a Wi-Fi watch, which will tell you whether there's Wi-Fi nearby and how strong it is, for a princely £19.95.

Tissot is a long-established name in the luxury watch market. Its mid-range T-Touch has touch screen functions and is designed to predict the weather, tell the altitude, offer a compass and thermometer, as well as more standard wristwatch features like alarms and water resistance. It is aimed at the hiker or, as expected, the gadget enthusiast.

Sport is a recurring theme. Anyone who has a membership with a gym or health club will note that much of the high-tech equipment can measure your heart rate while you burn calories. This type of wireless functionality has been available in sports watches for years, but others are now getting in on the act.

Garmin is among those co-operating on watches with built-in satellite navigation so that not only can you know how late you are for a meeting, but just how far from your destination you've ended up.

But, the consumer isn't the only likely customer for a watch that does more than tell the time.

Bulky fashion

The gadget watches examined in this article share some features in common. First, they have a tendency to be bulky. E&T was sent one of the Swap models to try out for a while and one of the first things that occurred was a large footprint as it had to fit a music player, video player and phone into a watch - although, having said that, larger dials are currently fashionable. Likewise, the Tissot T-Touch appears bulky but no more than an average diving watch.

Society as a whole, or at least a particular demographic, is taking to the multifunctional device. It might be a printer that scans and faxes, it might be a phone that takes pictures, or it might be a watch that makes calls as well as tells the time.

What is going to be interesting, is how the market settles. One gadget watch owner we spoke to evangelised enthusiastically about his heart rate monitor watch with a vibrating alarm, only to confess that he'd replaced it with an iPhone after due consideration - and people replacing watches with phones is kind of where we came in...

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