Monday, September 23, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Watches (Not Smart Ones) and Smartphones

by Bill Adler

There’s a connection between watches and smartphones, but not the one that immediately comes to mind. This connection has nothing at all to do with smartwatches, those silicon chips encased in plastic that we can now wear on our wrists.

The connection is an historical and philosophical one that takes a little bit of watch history to explain. (A very little bit, I promise.)

In the 1970s there was a great advance in watch technology, which came to be called the quartz revolution. Quartz watches, now cheap and ubiquitous, in one fell swoop eliminated the scene from all spy movies where one actor says to another, “let’s synchronize watches” because quartz watches were many times more accurate than the mechanical watches of the day. And they’ve only gotten better since.

The quartz revolution threatened to destroy the world’s mechanical watch industry. Why would anyone want a mechanical watch --even an automatic one that didn’t need winding-- if you could get a quartz watch that was ten times more accurate and less expensive? Some watch companies went out of business. But not all. In fact, in 2013 the mechanical watch industry is doing great.

Why? The reason is simple in hindsight, but at the time, it was a revolution in thinking. The watch industry turned their product from something that people need to something that people want. The watch industry started to innovate in ways that they couldn’t even imagine before: Watches turned into even more beautiful things, and people wanted them.

Then came smartphones, which upended the quartz watch industry. Smartphones are even more accurate than quartz watches, because they get an always-on time signal from the cell phone company. A lot of people now don’t even wear a watch at all. But people who do wear watches wear them -- enough to keep the industry making even more amazing watches. Even Swatch is making a mechanical watch:

What does this all have to do with phones? People who wear watches do so because they want to, rather than because they need to. When people look at their elegant watches they do so often because they want to see something nice, not because they want to know how many minutes it is until their next meeting. That raises an interesting, instructive question about smartphones: Do we use them because we want to, or feel that we need to? I think it’s often 95 percent feel that we need to and 5 percent want to.  We’re not even sure why we’re in constant motion with our smartphones. We’re so busy with our phones that we don’t even have time to think about them, but if we did, we’d see ourselves as a sad commentary. If you want to see yourself --ourselves-- from the outside, watch this short video: .

The lesson learned from wrist watches is that technology is a lot better when it’s for fun, when it’s something we do because we want to, than when it’s something we feel that we have to use.


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets,", "Outwitting Squirrels,", and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. His tech column is published on Tuesdays.

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