Fossil’s New Smartwatches Favor Fashion Over Tech
The designers at Fossil have been making watches and jewelry for decades. When they set out to make their first smartwatch, though, they had to re-learn a few things. “Without the connected functionality,” says Jill Elliott-Sones, Fossil’s chief creative officer, “there’s not a charging component, there’s not some module that has specific wiring and connection points that we have to think about.” Designing watches is hard enough, with hundreds of tiny pieces required to move in perfect synchronicity. Throw in step-tracking and calorie-counting, and it only gets harder.
Ever since smartwatches became The Next Big Thing, it’s seemed a foregone conclusion that the watch industry would try and take it over. Yet while tech companies have littered shelves with experiments good, bad, and ugly, traditional watchmakers have tread more carefully. Other than Tag Heuer’s huge and expensive Connected watch, there’s not much competition. Fossil’s hoping to take the market by storm. It bought wearable-maker Misfit last week for $260 million, as of November 25, there’s also the Fossil Q Founder, a $275 Android Wear watch that Elliott-Sones hopes can give smartwatches the high-end-yet-mass-appeal design Fossil’s known for. And, Elliott-Sones says, the market’s about to heat up big time.
Fossil’s been thinking about connected jewelry for a long time, but the tech wasn’t ready before now. Even if it worked, it didn’t work for Fossil. Elliott-Sones refused to compromise on her design sensibilities just to be able to sell something high-tech. “Before when we tried to play there,” she says, “we would be brought something that was so large it was impossible to design around.” Recently, though, the team at Intel showed off a chipset Fossil could work with. Thus began the development of Q, a brand-new lineup of Fossil products that the Texas-based company hopes will carry it into the connected future.
As they developed the Q products, Fossil split its team in two. One team worked closely with Intel on the raw technology, making something as small and usable as possible. Another worked on the design and identity of the products themselves. If there were ever conflicts between the two, the tech team lost. “Any time we had a choice to make,” Elliott-Sones says, “if it was going to get bigger, or delay production, or compromise the look of it, we definitely erred on the side of fashion.” She pauses, and says it again for emphasis. “We definitely erred on the side of fashion.”
The initial Q products—two bracelets, the Q Reveler and Q Dreamer, and a watch, the Q Grant—hardly look high-tech at all. They just look like wristwatches, or the same kind of ID bracelet Fossil’s made for years. You might never notice they’re silently tracking your activity, or blinking to let you know someone important is calling. (The Q products have a companion app that, among other things, lets you pick a set of important people whose calls and texts will be sent to your device. Everything else gets shut out.) They’re made to be jewelry first, technology second.
There’s a lot Fossil wants to eventually do and track with its connected devices, but it’s starting simple. The Q devices track steps taken and calories burned, and deliver filtered notifications as specified in the app. There’s also a neat “Q Curiosity” feature that encourages you do something a little different or strange every day—“today’s challenge is to make a paper snowflake.” The app itself is clean and clever, and most of the information you need is there. The watches and bracelets are mostly, well, watches, and bracelets. These ones just come with a huge charging cradle.
The newest member of the lineup, the Q Founder, is different. It calls attention to itself in just about every way. The 46mm-diameter face and 13mm-thick case are large by any standard (not to mention the same size as the Tag Heuer Connected), and the chrome band is plenty flashy. And as soon as you look closely, you can tell this is a gadget, not a wristwatch. The big, round screen blinks on with every notification, and even Fossil’s classy chronograph watchface can’t hide the black stripe cut out of the screen. It doesn’t ruin any of the watch’s functionality, but the “flat-tire” look doesn’t make the Moto 360 look any classier, and doesn’t help here either.
For a smartwatch, though, it looks great, far better than even similar attempts from tech companies. “We customized the case and the lugs, and it’s a really beautiful style,” Elliott-Sones says. Yet it still feels compromised in the name of its feature set. “Probably, today, the technology and size for what it is, it’s still a very specific customer,” Elliott-Sones says. “But what we bring to the table is something a little more beautifully designed and in line with our aesthetic.”
The difference between the simpler Q Grant and the full-display Q Founder is telling. The basic technology for step-tracking and notifications is now easy to invisibly add to a wristwatch. This is the kind of connected product you’ll soon start to see everywhere, from the Rolexes of the world all the way down to the Swatches. These are the “smarter watches” Fossil CEO Kosta Kartsotis likes to talk about. “There’s a lot of people doing other trackers out there,” Elliott-Sones says. “They’re all very sporty, and great for a certain part of your life, but we wanted to fit something into what just looked like an everyday watch and everyday bracelet.” In many ways, that’s all people actually want. It’s also the kind of product Misfit, which has been working on simple interfaces and blinking-light notifications on wearables that last months on a charge, is perfectly suited to help Fossil make.
A device like the Q Founder presents a harder problem, simply because Android Wear allows it to do so much more. The software’s easy—Google handles that part. But a screen needs a battery and a processor that can keep up. Those are hard to come by, and they simply don’t exist at small enough sizes to make normal-sized watches. But you know how technology works—that’ll probably change eventually.
That’s what Elliott-Sones is hoping for. “As the technology evolves,” she says, “and you’re able to make it smaller…it’s still the size of the watch.” She insists we’ve reached the point where you can make a watch that isn’t hideously, garishly large. Now Fossil gets to start to see what else people want, which no one really knows yet. “Do they care about email on a watch? It’ll be interesting to see, and watch, and learn, and evolve the design from there.”
Tech and fashion are still figuring each other out, Elliott-Sones says a few times during our conversation, and nowhere is that clearer than in the rapidly-evolving smartwatch market. She knows one thing for sure: People want their smartwatches to look as good as their watches. After that, who knows? “One of the things that I’m interested in here is that there’s a whole generation of kids who’ve never worn a watch,” she says. “They’ve just used their phone, or other devices to tell time. So the ability to combine those two in a fashion way—is that something that’s interesting?”
She thinks Fossil’s made something people will want to wear because they like it, not just because it’s useful. Now she gets to learn what useful really means when the device on your wrist can do way more than tell time.
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