Innovation Lesson: Rethinking the Watch


Clive Thompson, who spoke at the IdeaFestival last year, recently posted a thought provoking piece on the competition between master watchmakers in Switzerland and their mechanical masterpieces, and smart watches such as those made by Pebble and Apple.

How, he asks, can the analog watchmakers compete?

As it turns out there are several advantages an analog watch possesses. For one thing, it will never go out of style because the software that powers it is no longer up to the job, or because the hardware itself is slow and can no longer efficiently process the code, or the software developer has made a business decision to move to a different code base in anticipation of future features.

With some cleaning and care, a well made analog watch, in contrast, will last generations. While Swiss watchmakers cater in many regards to wealthy clients, they’ve clearly thought hard about the competitive advantage they hold against digital makers.

This kind rethinking of the hands of a watch is imaginative:

Using the phone app, the owner can set an activity goal, like 8,000 steps for a day. Then the watch displays how close you are to meeting it, using the hand on a small, secondary dial: At 2,000 steps, for example, the hand would point to 3 o’clock, signifying 25 percent. Eventually, the dial could quantify all sorts of data: How full is your inbox? How close is your friend to arriving at the restaurant? To Ronnie Bernheim, co-owner (with his brother André) of the watchmaker Mondaine… this approach is superior to the blunt accuracy of a screen. A watch hand is ‘glanceable,’ as he puts it, because it’s only semi-accurate; we peek at an analog wall clock to get a general sense of the time of day, not a precise one.

The idea of imprecise information being valuable information is intriguing. Seth Godin recently pointed out on his blog that too much information can result in noise, not better resolution. Swiss watches, as it turns out, offer valuable context in addition to the “blunt accuracy” of a time display. In the human context, “accuracy” can mean different things.

As an exercise in innovation, it’s a reminder that the oldest of creative methods – patient and careful observation – can provide unexpected insight.

Editor’s note: This post has been lightly edited from the original entry, which recently appeared on the IdeaFestival web log. The Kentucky Innovation Network is a sponsor of IdeaFestival 2015.