NEW YORK--Flashy high tech is making a move into the watch industry. As functionality becomes an ever-bigger factor in selling watches, a number of companies are rolling out what could be called watches of the future. While some of the features bring to mind Dick Tracy or Agent 007, many in the watch business say the moment is right for times that make life easier and more convenient. Swatch introduced its newest version of a wristwatch pager, Swatch the Beep, this year, while Seiko is in the midst of rolling out its MessageWatch--a pager watch plus other features--to 20 major U.S. markets this year and next. In the computer arena, Citizen recently rolled out a sports watch that can download diving data into a computer, and at least one other major U.S. watchmaker that requested anonymity said it is developing a general-application watch that can also store information and download. "If you think about it, the wristwatch is one of the few pieces of electronic gear that most people wear," said Michael C. Park, vice president of business and network development for Seiko Telecommunications, Beaverton, Ore., the division Seiko created to handle the MessageWatch. "It's really the most obvious place to start introducing portable technology into peoples' everyday lifestyles." Suzy Watson, trend analyst for Timex Corp., agreed, adding that her firm is gaining momentum on the technology trail. "Technology will definitely end up on the wrist because there is the ability to miniaturize it to that point now," Watson pointed out. "One potentially hot area, as we see it, is sensor-based watches, items that can open a garage door or start a car. We see these types of functions definitely on the brink of being possible." The main goal of these and other innovations, as many pointed out, is to provide functions that people want and need. In the last several years, softer-tech items such as chronographs, dual and multiple timers and improved forms of illuminated dials have become popular features in many watch lines. "One of the big things that is happening for us right now is functional watches," said Kim White, merchandise manager of jewelry and watches for Federated Merchandising, the buying arm of Federated Department Stores. "People are looking for watches that fit into highly active lifestyles." While the audience for highly specialized items such as pager watches may not be huge, White pointed out, anything that helps people save time these days is bound to attract interest. "Whether there would be a huge audience for a watch that, say, sends faxes is hard to say," White said. "But the main point is to give people something they find useful." Whatever their functions, White said, these high-tech watches won't cut into the fashion watch business. She agrees with watchmakers that this category will be, at least for the time being, an add-on watch business. However, some makers note that some of the technology could be incorporated into fashion watches. "Our basic philosophy is to incorporate simple, truly useful functions into our products," said Martin Grossenbacher, executive vice president of the U.S. division of Swatch. "We don't think consumers are all that happy with watches that have 15 different capabilities packed into one, for instance. These tend to be confusing, and often people don't understand how to use them." Swatch has chosen to take a position in the pager market, which it first entered two years ago with the Piepser, a tone-only pager/watch. The Piepser recorded incoming calls with a beep signal but did not have the display screen, which meant that users had to call a service number to find the number contacting them. Swatch the Beep represents the company's next generation pager/watch, Grossenbacher said. The item, which was developed in conjunction with MobileComm, a division of Bell South, and introduced in April, is an oversized watch with a numeric display screen that records incoming phone numbers just as a pager would. It wholesales for about $85. At this point, the product can only be used regionally, but the company is planning to link it into a national network next year, Grossenbacher said. In addition to being carried by home electronics chains, Swatch the Beep is being stocked by some department store and jewelry retailers, he noted. "We see the whole aspect of communication as the direction to go in as far as high-tech developments go," Grossenbacher noted. "The next step would be a watch that could be used as a phone." Seiko is another company hot on the trail of the pager craze, having spent the last three years developing the MessageWatch, a digital watch with a display screen for incoming calls and information. The pager receives numbers of up to 16 digits as well as messages such as "call home" and "call office." For an extra fee, users can subscribe to a service that runs everything from breaking news to lottery numbers across the display. "The sky is the limit as far as the informational applications go," said Seiko's Park. "When we first started test-marketing the watch, it just had the pager capabilities and we found that people wanted more. It's the 'information is power' idea." The MessageWatch, which wholesales for about $50, is now being sold only in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., and so has just regional applications. But, Park said, "our current goal is 20 U.S. markets in two years, and we're in the middle of negotiations with radio networks around the country." Seiko's aim is to eventually put together its own international network into which its watches can be hooked. Computers are developing as the technology of choice for others such as Citizen, which launched its PC-compatible Hyper Aqualand dive watch last spring. This watch contains several sensors that record diving information while the wearer is underwater. Later, the watch can be hooked into its own communication unit, an interface device that, when connected to a computer, allows the information recorded by the watch--such as dive times, maximum depths and water temperatures--to be downloaded into the computer's system.
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