The first MetaWatch smartwatch, which debuted in 2012, was an extremely direct competitor to the higher-profile Pebble. Both came from startups rather than major electronics companies; both dispensed with color touchscreens in favor of more power-efficient monochrome displays and push-button interfaces; both were bootstrapped through Kickstarter campaigns.
But with its new model, the M1, Meta is moving off in a different direction. (The watch, which Meta first showed off at CES in January, is due to ship in September; the company is taking preorders now.)
While Pebble has been focusing on building out its watches' capabilities via third-party apps, Meta has kept the software side simple. In fact, the most striking thing about the M1 isn't some new technology or capability—it's the lugs which connect the watch to the strap. They're oversized, they're attached to the sides of the timepiece via prominent bolts, and they swivel.
The moving lugs make the M1 look even larger than it is. But they're intended to make the watch fit more comfortably on smaller wrists than other great big hulking smartwatches do. (Even so, Meta founder and CEO Bill Geiser told me the M1 is a man's watch, though some women who have seen the white version which the company will sell have been intrigued.)
The M1 was designed by Frank Nuovo, who led Nokia's design efforts back when it rose to the top of the cell phone world based in part on pure stylishness; he also created models for Vertu, the former Nokia division which specializes in ludicrously expensive and blingy phones. It'll be available in eight versions, from a $249 variant with a stainless steel case and natural rubber strap to a $449 one which has both the case and band in black stainless steel.
As with plenty of wristwatch designs of all sorts, I think people will have strong visceral reactions to the M1, be they positive or negative: It doesn't try to disappear into the background to let you focus on the information on the display. But judging from the sneak peek I got, the level of physical polish and build quality is ambitious by smartwatch standards.
The company plans to emphasize distribution at watch counters in department stores, where the M1 won't go head-to-head with more gadgety smartwatches—such as those which run Google's Android Wear—and might find a different group of customers.
Geiser is a grizzled industry veteran by smartwatch standards: He formerly headed high-tech efforts at wristwatch giant Fossil, where he worked on such pioneering, bleeding-edge, and ultimately unsuccessful projects as the Wrist PDA and Microsoft SPOT Watch.
Unlike some of his previous projects, the M1 isn't aiming for any technological great leaps forward: It works with Meta's iOS and Android apps to offer basic stuff such as custom watch faces, notifications, and a remote control for your phone's music player. And Geiser told me that rather than rolling out an app store, Meta will work closely with a few partners to add third-party capabilities to its watches.
In other words: If you're a technophile, the M1 probably isn't for you. But Geiser thinks that the smartwatch business will end up being a lot like the watch business: Different folks will want radically different sorts of models, but almost everybody will care about how the watch looks on the wrist. If that turns out to be true, carving off one niche, as the M1 does, could turn out to be a viable strategy.