The Connected Modular 45 combines traditional craftsmanship with smart capabilities
The lull in wearable technology contains a contradiction. At the moment when the market’s pioneers in Silicon Valley — including Fitbit, Pebble and Jawbone — are struggling and tech groups such as Motorola are pressing pause on their wearables projects, the traditional replica watch industry is doubling down on the technology.
That was the clear message from Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of replica Tag Heuer, this week as he unveiled the Swiss company’s second smartwatch, the Connected Modular 45.
He declared at the launch event that the watch would marry 19th and 21st-century technology. Tag’s choice of materials such as titanium and ceramic, and a familiar circular display, ensure it looks more like a watch than a phone.
Tag’s launch was the first of several announcements ahead of next week’s Baselworld watch fair. Another luxury watchmaker, Montblanc, unveiled its first smartwatch, the $890 Summit, while Swatch said that it was working on a smartwatch operating system of its own to rival Apple and Google.
Tag’s first smartwatch, released in 2015, has sold 56,000 units, according to Mr Biver — more than the company expected. In consumer electronics terms, it seems a small number, but at $1,500 apiece, $80m in revenues appears to be a good result for the LVMH-owned company.
If that momentum can be maintained, it stands to profit even more from the second version, which starts at $1,650 but its array of interchangeable bezels, lugs and bands can add up to several times that price.
This “modular” approach is another attempt at futureproofing the device and addressing the apparent contradiction between spending thousands of dollars on a luxury timepiece that could be obsolete in a few years.
The original Connected Tag came with a guarantee that it could be traded in after two years for a traditional mechanical model.
Its successor offers that option from the day of purchase. This modular system’s bands and lugs come with quick-release buttons that allow its components, including the main clock, to be snapped in and out in a few seconds. Unlike conventional replica watches, no special tools are required for this, allowing the owner to do it as often as they wish.
Changing a watch’s strap is nothing new, but the button-press system Tag introduced this week is faster and simpler than fiddling with spring bars.
Setting aside the smartwatch component, Tag proudly proclaims it is the “first modular watch bearing the Swiss Made label” of any kind — digital or analogue. There are 56 different designs available to buy upfront, and potentially hundreds of permutations when combining 18 different rubber, leather, titanium and ceramic bands with various lugs and buckles.
That is before counting the thousands of customisable fake watch faces available, both through Tag’s own “studio” app and on the Android Wear app store.
While Tag may be claiming a first on behalf of the Swiss industry, other smartwatches already offer this kind of simple swap-ability. Personalisation has been a cornerstone of the Apple Watch since it was first unveiled in 2014, while Fitbit and Misfit have also teamed up with fashion brands on accessories.
Apple’s constantly changing bands are an under-appreciated part of Apple Watch’s appeal. The ease with which they slide into the Watch case is a big part of that.
A study just over a year ago by Wristly, which surveys Apple Watch owners, found that the average customer has at least two bands, with about a third buying three or more. I am among the extreme cases: I own six Apple Watch bands, including cheap rubber ones in bright colours bought for a few bucks from eBay to Apple’s own magnetic leather loop.
Consumers buy replica watches not only because they are practical but also because they are stylish, so smartwatches should be no different. Tag’s Connected Modular 45 has GPS for tracking runs and is waterproof for wearing in swimming pools — or (as its promotional video somewhat frighteningly suggests for something costing thousands of dollars) surfing in the ocean.
If we wear different clothing in water and at the dinner table, why shouldn’t our watch straps change as well?
All this customising is irrelevant for those who believe that a smartphone does everything they need from a smartwatch, including telling the time. There is little new in the Connected Modular 45’s technological feature set that will win over smartwatch sceptics.
Its chunky casing oddly lacks a heart-rate monitor, which has become standard in most wearable devices (I will have more to say on Android Wear 2.0 software and other, more affordable Google-powered smartwatches soon).
For those who enjoy high-priced timepieces, though, Tag’s pitch of combining the best of traditional watchmaking craftsmanship with something that can tap Google’s Assistant, track a run or pay wirelessly at the coffee shop will hold appeal. The future may look rather more like the past than we had anticipated.