Why Japanese watchmakers have no time for smartwatches

The fad of wearables-on-the-wrist doesn't resonate with Casio, Seiko and Citizen

By Tim Hornyak, IDG News Service |  

If the Rufus Cuff smartwatch is anything to go by, some people want a lot of hardware on their wrists.

The crowdfunded watch is truly massive: 8 centimeters wide, with a 3-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi, GPS and other features that make it seem like a smartphone strapped to your arm. The US$279 behemoth might look unwieldy to some, but backers love it. They've pledged over $230,000 to Rufus Cuff's Indiegogo fundraising campaign, more than meeting its goal of $200,000.

From grassroots campaigns to big manufacturers like Samsung, Sony and possibly Apple, smartwatches are starting to compete with traditional timepieces for wrist real-estate. The smartwatch industry was worth about $700 million in 2013 and is expected to reach $2.5 billion this year, according to Zurich-based research firm Smartwatch Group.

It seems like everyone's getting in on the game -- everyone, that is, except major watchmakers in Japan who have prided themselves on innovation, revolutionizing the industry in the 1970s and 1980s with quartz wristwatches.

It's certainly not for lack of high-tech chops. At the Baselworld watch trade show in Switzerland earlier this month, Casio showed off its latest designs for its super-rugged G-Shock brand.

The G-Shock Gravitymaster ensures it's showing the right time by picking up terrestrial radio signals as well as satellite GPS signals. Other G-Shocks are also connected, but to mobile devices. The DJ turntable-inspired G'Mix uses Bluetooth links to control music playback on a smartphone or to receive the correct time from a phone.

G-Shocks are evolving, and can still take the hard knocks they were designed to withstand when the brand was inaugurated 31 years ago. But while some Casio watches have smartwatch-like features, Casio sees a clear divide between its timepieces and wearable computers.

"As long as a watch can provide a new convenience to customers, we'll aggressively pursue new technology to be incorporated into the watch," said Shinji Saito, a product planner at Casio's Hamura R&D Center in Tokyo where G-Shocks are put through punishing tests.

"But the bottom line is, a watch is a watch and we think it should be able to display time whenever customers glance at their wrists."

The idea of having to recharge a smartwatch's battery for it to tell the time doesn't sit well with Casio, which launched its first wristwatch, the digital Casiotron, 40 years ago.

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