As recently as a year ago, the Swiss watch industry was hoping that the smartwatch business would just dry up and go away. But just as Swatch led the fight against the Japanese onslaught of quartz movements, the Swiss watch industry is now embracing smartwatches, using a common platform from California and its own excellent design sense.
It may not surprise you to learn that the charge is being led by Philippe Kahn, whose Fullpower Technologies has teamed with the Swiss watch company Union Horlogère Holding, which owns the brands Alpina and Frederique Constant. The joint venture, Manufacture Modules Technologies (MMT), is based in Switzerland and will create and license a hardware platform — in watch terms, call it a “movement” — that smaller companies can incorporate into their own watches. The first licensee is Mondian, best known for the iconic Swiss Railway watch.
Kahn’s Fullpower, for those who are new here, is the technology behind the Nike Fuelband and other fitness trackers, and holds a bunch of core wearables patents. Kahn himself is a long-time entrepreneur in the computer and technology business with prominent and successful businesses dating the dawn of the personal computer era. He invented, for instance, the cellphone camera.
MMT-based watches are not digital in the sense than an Apple Watch or a Pebble is digital. There’s no digital display. Instead, the watchfaces look more like the Withings Activé line: an analog clock face with a smaller analog dial that displays the percentage complete of your daily goal, whatever that goal may be. All the digital display hoo-ha happens on your smartphone. This allows watchmakers to make beautiful cases and faces and bands, which are their historical strengths.
This type of arrangement is hardly without precedent. For many years, Swatch — which consumers see as a budget and fashion-oriented brand — has been making the guts of even expensive Swiss and Japanese watches. This was a reaction to the electronic revolution of the electronic Bulova Accutron watch of the 1960s, which nearly killed the Swiss watch industry. This time, the lesson’s been learned: adapt soon or die.
MMT says they’ll have 10 different watches this year, starting at $995, and shipping in June. (The big watch show is called Baselworld; it’s in March, so there’ll be a lot of watch announcements shortly — which may be why Apple is planning some kind of announcement for March 9.) And the upcoming smartwatches from Swatch and TAG Heuer will apparently not be using the MMT movement.