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Who’s watching the watchmakers?

I’m delighted to see that my college friend, fellow former Cornell Daily Sun columnist, author and economics commentator Daniel Gross is. (I’ve been, too.) Dan runs some numbers in Slate and determines that the market for functional wristwear is on the decline. Indeed, the humble watch is often overlooked when thinking about competition among portable multifunction gadgets, especially cell phones, that have more glamorous cannibalistic features such as playing digital music and games, taking video and even GPS capabilities.

Dan focuses attention on Fossil, in particular its now somewhat ironically named Relic brand of basic timepieces. Dan provides a strong case that — unlike with digital cameras, iPods or DS Lites — cell phones and their tethered digital rivals may indeed be cleaning the clock of watches.

I had an illuminating discussion with Fossil last year about tech watches as it introduced its first Bluetooth watches. Make no mistake that the company sees itself squarely in the fashion industry and thus offers other personal accoutrements in addition to watches. Men may be attracted to gadgets, but high-tech watches have not sold well even though they are starting to become more compelling.

In any case, I agree that the wrist remains an inestimably valuable section of real estate and that we have at least one generation left before humans become unaccustomed to glancing at that part of their body for the time and perhaps other information. How should companies maximize its value? Years ago, Peter Rojas (he of the scandalous charisma) once wrote that watchmakers should simply use Bluetooth to show relevant data retrieved via cell phones; it’s a great direction but I think ultimately the relationship needs to be more symbiotic, as is the case for Fossil’s Bluetooth watch.

In other words, the watch should be able to alert you to personally relevant information — far beyond news and stocks to things actually happening in your life — but take advantage of the cell phone’s larger display for more depth. In this scenario, the watch would be a kind of ancillary display for the cell phone. Cost reductions of electronic ink will do wonders to help in this endeavor and Bluetooth could handle the PAN duties today, but I don’t see any quick fix for the level of intelligent filtering that would be required to make this meaningful and relevant for consumers.

How will the industry know it’s succeeded? Simple. When women buy more of them than men.

 Via Gizmodo