Revolutions and Time Telling

For about a decade I’ve been talking about “bandwidth built in” and for that long I’ve been using the watch as an example.  I’ve used it several times in the past month, so I feel compelled to share it with all of you. :)

Usually when I talk about the Mobility Revolution, I put it in the context of the PC/Microprocessor Revolution and the Internet Revolution, but this story works better to talk about the Electrical Revolution and the Microprocessor Revolution.  It’s all the same, really.  It’s a story about how new technologies radically change how we interact with the world and the rules of competition across industries in ways that we could never have imagined.

If I were a technology visionary 100 years ago and I went to a watchmaker and said “in the future, virtually all watches will have electricity built in”, he would think I was crazy.  In his mind, he would imagine a power cord running to the watch and he would say that no one would buy such a product.  He also would recognize that electricity wasn’t even available in much of the U.S., much less the world.

Of course, today, that prediction has come true.  Not in the way that the watchmaker envisioned, but through powerful, tiny batteries.  No one expects to wind a watch anymore.  Electric watches have freed us from the effort of winding, and from the worry that our watch will run down and we’ll need to re-set it – or at least we only need to worry about it every few years when the battery dies.

Thirty years ago, if I’d gone to a watch maker and said “in the future, most watches will have a computer built in”, he would think I was crazy.  He’d imagine the computers of the day – huge systems that required raised floor, climate controlled spaces to operate, and he could not imagine how that could be associated with a watch.

I couldn’t quickly find stats to prove this, but I would guess that today, that prediction has come true – that at least a large number of watches sold today are either digital watches, or they are “analog” (they have hands), but they also have microprocessors within them playing some role (even if just for displaying the date).

A decade or so ago, I started saying that “in the future, most watches will have bandwidth built in”.  At the time, most people thought I was crazy.  They envisioned a modem (remember those?) with a phone wire (remember those?) hanging out, and they couldn’t imagine anyone buying a watch like that.

By the time I started talking about it, I’d already bought a Timex Data Link watch (I still have it around here somewhere).  So, I can’t claim to have just dreamed the concept up.  Since then, most of the watches I’ve bought have had some form of bandwidth built in, whether they be linked via satellite to the national atomic clock, or even Microsoft’s failed SPOT” technology.  Or my most recent exciting edition – a GPS-based exercise watch!

When I wear a watch that doesn’t have atomic time, I feel inadequate.  Even if I’m not traveling across time zones, simply giving up the confidence that my watch is perfectly accurate causes concern (I hate to be late for anything).  A brother-in-law who is a jeweler made a completely different observation about the atomic watch.  He said “wow, I bet they can make them really cheap that way.”  His point was that the mechanism in the watch doesn’t need to be very accurate, because the time is regularly updated with perfect accuracy, offsetting the deficiencies of the internal workings.

However, to prove my point even more than I thought…

Especially for young people, the majority of “watches” certainly have bandwidth built in, but not in the way I’d imagined.  I was just as bound by my foolish projection of current models into a future state as the watchmakers of old that I poke fun at in my story.

Today, for many people, the cellphone has completely replaced the watch.  My son may grow up never regularly wearing a watch.  (Since I have this fascination with watches, he’s felt compelled to wear one for a day or two at different times in his life.) For most people, the cellphone is always with them, it’s time is always accurate, it adjusts to new timezones (if it’s linked to the cellular carrier’s clock) – so why bind your wrist with some leather and metal?

Of course, this “bandwidth built in” is beginning to have a significant impact on the jewelry business.

What does “bandwidth built in” mean for your industry, your business, and how you personally interact with the world?

6 Responses to “Revolutions and Time Telling”

  1. PaulH says:

    Hi Russ,

    I have been stopping by for a few months now, and have enjoyed your thoughtful observations on technology.

    I especially enjoyed this article because it had to do with watches. My dad was an electrical engineer who worked at IBM on such things as system360, and the Saturn 5 missile for NASA. I was fascinated by technology at an early age, and the closest I could come to the anazing world in which my father worked was whenever he would bring home a new calculator or watch.

    The watch that sticks out most clearly was a Timext digital wrist watch circa 1977, which had an LED display and a button on the side which you had to press to show the time. The display used up so much power that if you turned it on too often, it would run down the batteries in a few days. I think that was why after a while my Dad gave up on it, and removed several links from the wristband so I could wear it.

    So, not to be disrespectful, of course, but there were at least some watchmakers 30 years ago that were contemplating the uses of microprocessors in wristwatches, and one 6 year old boy who was absolutely certain about the future of such devices.

    Thanks again for your insights. Keep it up, please!

  2. Russ says:

    Paul – thanks for sharing your story. I loved it!

    You might enjoy this old post of mine from a couple of years ago: http://mcguireslaw.com/2007/12/17/60th-birthday-for-the-transistor/

  3. Jeffrey Struss says:

    Heh, I am one of those who doesn’t wear a watch. I have a gorgeous Seiko Kinetic charging watch, but I just don’t EVER wear it. I feel like I will damage it and it is too nice. Plus, nothing keeps better time than my cellphone. Like you said it changes time zones, it keeps accurate time, It has the date and keeps my appointments as well. PLUS all of the other stuff it does.

  4. […] in point – my smartwatch. I have loved connected watches for a very long time. In 1994, I bought a Timex DataLink watch. Then in the late 1990s I started buying watches with a […]

  5. […] a very long time and even now, I’ve often used the watch as an example of the impact of the technology revolutions on products and industries. In fact, for the past couple of decades, I’ve been saying “in the future, most watches […]

  6. […] a very long time and even now, I’ve often used the watch as an example of the impact of the technology revolutions on products and industries. In fact, for the past couple of decades, I’ve been saying “in the future, most watches […]

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