How a TAG Heuer smartwatch could deliver the best Android Wear experience yet

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Almost exactly one year ago, TAG Heuer CEO Stephane Linder spent an hour on the phone with me, dissing smartwatches. He was dismissive. He sounded bothered. He said the smartwatches available at the time looked like “cheap wrist computers.”

He also brushed away talk of TAG Heuer jumping into the smartwatch fray anytime soon.

stephane linder 4 Image: TAG Heuer

Stephane Linder left his TAG Heuer CEO gig in December 2014.

“I don’t see us taking a big risk,” Linder told me, “unless we find a way to make luxury watches looking like real luxury watches that provide very easy-to-use, smart information.”

That was March 2014, and within eight months he would leave the company. Perhaps now we know why. Yesterday, TAG Heuer announced that it’s working with Google and Intel on a smartwatch that will be released by the end of the year.

So what explains TAG Heuer’s dramatic about-face, and perhaps even Linder’s exit? Is the Swiss powerhouse so spooked by the Apple Watch, it’s willing to abandon its design standards? Or have TAG Heuer and friends actually landed on the perfect combination of analog and digital features?

Disclosure: I’m something of a TAG Heuer fanboy. I’ve been wearing an entry-level Formula 1 for about 10 years. But I also think Google is making very smart choices with its Android Wear vision, and I have ideas on how to merge TAG Heuer and Wear in a way that strengthens Google’s platform without sacrificing the craftsmanship of analog timepieces.

A new Carrera

Details about the TAG Heuer project are scant. We know the watch will integrate Android Wear, but we don’t know how. Pocket-lint says “rumors suggest” the watch will be modeled after the TAG Heuer Carrera model. Meanwhile, TAG Heuer top boss Jean-Claude Biver told Reuters, “people will have the impression that they are wearing a normal watch,” and has gone on record saying the timepiece will have a Swiss-made dial.

A dial, huh? That doesn’t sound like a flat digital watchface to me. So I’m hoping that when the watch is released, we’ll see the very first Android Wear device to merge a full-fledged analog watchface—moving hands and all—with Google’s notification cards.

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Google’s Android Wear boss, David Singleton (far right), joined TAG Heuer executives to announce the new smartwatch. The cheese? A very bizarre marketing stunt.

Crescent display, improved battery life

You can see my vision for the Wear Carrera in the illustration below. There’s really not that much to it—but that’s exactly the point. The watch is essentially a brand-correct Carrera with an analog movement and polished hands inside a stainless steel case. But the lower third of the face plays host to a multi-function Android Wear complication.

My Wear window is an odd shape, a semi-circle. But at least one display expert tells me it can be done.

DisplayMate president Raymond Soneira says an OLED display would be perfect for this application. “OLEDs are the ideal display for smartwatches because they’re thin, don’t need a backlight, and off pixels don’t use any power... With the same OLED technology and architecture as the display in the LG Watch R, I’m sure that the crescent shape, or almost any shape display, could be produced.”

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Soneira makes an important point about power consumption, but what if we could push battery life past the 18 hours promised by the Apple Watch? Well, for starters, my little crescent has fewer than half the pixels of typical smartwatches. So you’ll find battery-life savings right there.

But what if TAG Heuer eliminated a color display option entirely, and went with a low-power monochrome LCD? Frankly, I don’t think Android Wear needs to be in color. And a stark black-and-white display would much better confirm TAG Heuer’s design statement.

Reduced features, increased simplicity

Reduced screen real estate would have an impact on Android Wear usability. So not only would TAG Heuer and Google have to make this all work within Android Wear’s UI rules (or, more disruptively, amend those rules), they would also be wise to restrict what actually appears on the watch. I’ll always be your strongest advocate for smartwatch simplicity—I told Apple as much—so why not kick some superfluous features off the Android Wear plate as well?

Ditch the Android Wear heart rate monitor. Ditch navigation. We can even ditch step counting. Focus instead on simple notifications, a few key apps, and text messaging. I’ve used Google’s Roboto font for messaging in my illustration, but I’d like the watch even more if it used TAG Heuer’s house font, Gill Sans. Indeed, this analog-digital merger will really only sing if the digital side of the watch quiets down.

I know I’m asking for a lot of changes—a lot of changes for just a single Android Wear partner. But what if TAG Heuer is Google’s most important Android Wear partner, and this new smartwatch project is just the first of many Swiss-made Wear watches?

tag heuer carrera TAG Heuer

One of many Carrera models.

We’ll see. If I had to bet my own money, I’d hazard that when TAG Heuer’s smartwatch finally rolls around, we’ll see a dazzling TAG Heuer case and an assortment of sumptuous bands and bracelets, but the display will be a full-circle OLED. The digital watchface collection may recall every single face from the Carrera’s storied history, from 1963 to the present. But it will still, essentially, be an Android Wear watch.

None of that would square with what Linder shared with me a year ago. Perfectly nailing why we love luxury timepieces so much, Linder spoke passionately about their meticulous craftsmanship—“like you can feel the hand of people in it.”

It’s a powerful argument for analog movements somewhere in a smartwatch, and I hope TAG Heuer isn’t ready to give up on them yet.

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