It’s an interesting–and possibly dangerous–time to be introducing a new smartwatch.
The market is currently fractured. A bunch of models are based on Google’s Android Wear, but none of them have become a breakout hit. Samsung is doing both Android Wear and its own watch software built on the Tizen operating system. There’s Pebble. There are outliers such as Sony’s Smart Watch 3.
Of course, there’s also the Apple Watch, which will arrive on April 24. It will change the category in ways that are not entirely possible to predict just yet, but could lead to Apple redefining expectations as it did with MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets.
And now a startup called Olio Devices is announcing that it’s entering the fray. (It prefers the term “connected watch.”) Its founder and CEO, Steve Jacobs, is a veteran of Apple’s iPod and iPhone teams, as well as design work for Beats, HP, and other big brands; his team includes alumni of Movado, Pixar, and other companies.
The Model One series, which Olio is unveiling today, has several distinguishing characteristics. Compared to most smartwatches already on the market, the Model One has a premium feel, with hand-finished, water-resistant steel cases, glass backs that display the charging coils within, fancy straps, and a variety of proprietary technologies designed to do things like improve the display’s quality and extend the battery life to two days of use between charges. These features help explain the starting price of $595, which places the Model One near the top of the current smartwatch market.
Like most smartwatches, the Model One is on the hefty side, but Olio put four weights inside to balance it on your hand and reduce the chances of it slipping around on your wrist. The color LCD screen looks good, and lets you accomplish everything through touch. (There are no buttons on this watch, period.) However, the watch, like Motorola’s Moto 360, doesn’t have a round display: There’s an ungainly flat area at the top, where some of the electronics live. (Jacobs told me that it’s not yet possible to make a truly round smartwatch screen without the watch case becoming unreasonably bulky–though LG’s G Watch R gives it a good try.)
In all its variants–steel and black cases, with steel bracelets or metal straps–the Model One is among the nicest looking smartwatches so far from an industrial-design standpoint. But the most significant thing about it is its software. Olio built everything itself, which feels like a brave move in 2015 but is also a reflection of the fact that the watch has been in the works for two years, long before anyone had heard of Android Wear or the Apple Watch. (As with most smartwatches, this one relies on a smartphone for Internet access and other heavy lifting; unlike most, it will work with both iPhones and Android phones.)
Rather than providing discrete apps, the watch attempts to give you everything you need to stay connected in one unified interface. The watch face uses spoke-like lines to chart your last 12 hours’ worth of activity–a long line means you got lots of incoming notifications, and a short one means that not much happened. In an interface that reminds me of Pebble’s upcoming timeline-based Pebble Time in philosophy if not detail, you swipe in from the left to see things that already happened (like the arrival of email messages) and to the right for upcoming stuff (like calendar appointments). A cloud-based service called Olio Assist aims to help you with stuff such as taking action on incoming text messages: If one comes in while you’re driving, for instance, you can swipe to send a response saying you’ll get back to that person later.
Olio’s creators also built in features for controlling Internet-connected household appliances such as the Nest thermostat and Philips’ Hue lightbulbs, with plans to add support for more smart gizmos over time.
The Model One does quite a bit. But one thing it doesn’t do at all is support third-party apps. If it lets you accomplish something, it’s because Olio implemented that capability in the watch’s software.
In fact, CEO Jacobs told me that he thinks the entire smartwatch category will migrate away from apps over time. People don’t want to run software on a tiny screen strapped to their wrist, he told me; they want the functionality they need to appear right when they need it, an approach he described as “I don’t need to worry about finding the app for anything, because the pertinent information is always there.”
If he’s right, Olio is simply getting to the future ahead of its larger competitors. For now, though, not bothering with apps is an deeply idiosyncratic move. Then again, a small startup like Olio trying to build a platform to compete with Apple and Google would also be deeply idiosyncratic, which makes dispensing with apps a defensible strategy. Even so, I don’t think that convincing consumers that apps are unimportant is going to be a cakewalk, if it’s possible at all.
Can a handcrafted smartwatch running handcrafted software succeed? Olio is giving itself an opportunity to reach some initial level of success without selling many watches at all. It’s taking pre-orders for two 500-watch production runs it plans to complete this summer: one of steel models (starting at $595), and one of black ones (starting at $745). That’s a really tiny number given that even an upstart like Pebble has sold almost 100,000 Pebble Time watches through its current Kickstarter campaign. The Apple Watch’s sales are going to make Pebble’s look tiny. And even if Olio sells out its first 1,000 units, the total revenue will amount to only roughly what Apple will get for four top-of-the-line 18K Apple Watches.
Jacobs’ stance is that small is good. “We’re like that local brewery or local coffee shop that makes an incredibly high-quality product,” he told me. “It’s your local spot.” That’s a model that’s long worked in the Swiss luxury watch industry, where giants like Rolex and Omega are the exception and many smaller companies do just fine producing very limited numbers of watches a year.
In consumer electronics, however, it’s rare to hear anyone say that they intend to do anything but sell a new product in as vast quantities as possible. Ultimately, Olio is going to have to sell a lot more than 1,000 units to be viable–and will have to bet that the smartwatch industry has room for the boutique player it aspires to be.