Mike Elgan: The wristwatch will rise again

If you've got the time, read why a new era of wristwatches is at hand

Apple wristwatch

The next-gen wristwatch isn't here yet, but this iPod Nano as wristwatch provides a glimpse of the future.

Conventional wisdom says people don't wear wristwatches anymore -- especially young people. The story goes that because we now have cell phones, we no longer need to lash anything to our wrists.

But that's not what's going on. Wristwatches have been coming in and out of fashion for centuries -- a trend driven by technology. And soon, technology will bring the wristwatch back to an arm near you.

Why people think the wristwatch is dead

High school and college students don't wear wristwatches anymore. In fact, something called the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014, which each year lists "cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college," identified a small cultural difference between incoming college freshmen and those of us over the age of, say, 25.

Young people don't recognize the pointing-to-the-wrist gesture as having anything to do with time, as sign language for "what time is it?" Because young people grew up with cell phones as timepieces rather than wristwatches, they don't associate the wrist with the time.

Much has been made of this cultural difference, prompting some even to declare that the wristwatch is dead.

Even among people over the age of 25, the trending is definitely away from wearing wristwatches.

And it seems to make sense. After all, you're carrying a cell phone anyway -- and all cell phones tell the time -- so why lash another clock to your wrist?

I'll tell you why in a minute, but first let me explain why all these naked wrists are part of a back-and-forth cycle rather than a one-way trend leading to the end of the wristwatch.

The watch wars

The watch was arguably the world's first mobile consumer gadget when it arrived in the 16th century. The first watches were worn around the neck or attached to clothing, because they were too large for pockets -- or wrists. (In a way, they were sort of like the clocks worn by rapper and reality TV star, Flavor Flav.)

But in the 1670s, the vest came into fashion. And by then the process of miniaturization had advanced to the point where watches could be placed into a vest pocket.

The process of miniaturization, and all kinds of innovation, eventually made it possible to make a watch that could be worn around the wrist. The first wristwatches were used by the German navy in the 1880s, and from then until the present day the use of wristwatches by sailors and soldiers during war has been constant.

But in the early 1900s, the pocket watch was still the dominant fashion for civilian men, though women increasingly wore wristwatches. Of course, men wore wristwatches when they needed to -- while flying an airplane, for example.

However, so many men were involved in World War I, where mechanized warfare demanded the use of wristwatches, that returning soldiers created the consumer trend of wearing wristwatches all the time. By then, technology had advanced enough to produce wristwatches that were small, accurate and durable.

An entire industry sprang up to provide wristwatches of every description to every type of consumer -- from Mickey Mouse watches for children to diamond encrusted fashion accessories and the nerdy calculator watches of the 1980s.

The wristwatch reigned supreme and formed a standard part of the wardrobes of both men and women from the 1930s until around 2000. But then, cell phones -- and later smartphones -- became ubiquitous, and wristwatches have been losing ground for a decade.

But from a timekeeping perspective, what is a smartphone? It's a pocket watch. Without anybody noticing, the pendulum has swung back to the pocket watch era. If you think about it, the habit of checking the time by reaching into the pocket, pulling out a bulky device, clicking on something to expose the clock, clicking again and returning it to the pocket is a throwback to the Victorian era.

Why the wristwatch will rise again

Miniaturization technology created the smartphone revolution, and miniaturization technology will destroy it.

Using a cell phone to tell the time isn't ideal. For example, you can't check the time during a movie without annoying others. And although you can use a smartphone to measure your speed and distance while jogging, you have to leave it behind when swimming.

As the process of miniaturization continues, we will think less about cramming everything into a single device and more about invisible, ubiquitous and pervasive technologies distributed all over our bodies.

Fitness sensors will be built into our shoes. Cameras will find their way into eyeglasses and sunglasses. Music-playing electronics will be sewn into our clothing. But most of all, all kinds of stuff will be crammed into the wristwatches of tomorrow.

It's likely that the first wave of this all-over-your-body technology will use smartphones as a kind of Internet-connected command center.

The new Bluetooth 4.0 specification was approved in July, and it will make it much easier for very small devices to communicate with each other wirelessly. Specifically, the new spec enables devices powered by standard watch batteries to communicate via Bluetooth. It's also faster.

Other technologies are dramatically improving the prospects for wrist gadgets. For example, Seiko will soon ship a wristwatch called the Active Matrix EPD that has an e-paper display with a high-resolution screen that has a much wider viewing angle than LCD technology and uses far less power. In fact, the Seiko watch will run on solar power. The watch also sets itself via a radio connection to the nearest atomic clock.

The Seiko Active Matrix EPD provides a good standard template for the wristwatch of the future: a high-resolution screen and no need to ever charge it or set it. Now imagine adding to that a constant Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, displaying caller ID, text messages, and even data from whatever apps you have running on the phone. And you could change the characters and overall style of the watch face to match every occasion.

Meanwhile, other advances favor a wristwatch comeback. Scientists are shrinking everything, including memory. Within a few years, wristwatches will contain gigabytes of RAM and storage.

These developments will bring new players into the wristwatch industry, most interestingly consumer electronics companies like Sony and Apple.

Hewlett-Packard has already announced that it's developing a wristwatch for the U.S. military that will have a flexible display, will run on solar energy and may support videoconferencing, among other things. The company has promised a prototype within a year.

Many of the existing gadgets that exist on the periphery but are generally not purchased by ordinary consumers, will probably become mainstream in the next few years as they get far better and cheaper. For example, cell phone wristwatches, HD video camera wristwatches -- even the long-sought-after Dick Tracy phones. Think of iPhone's FaceTime on your wrist.

Wearing a big-brand device on your wrist is the Next Big Thing in consumer electronics. And why not? The wrist is a great place to put a gadget.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. You can contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter at  @mike_elgan, or read his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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