One watchband may be more important than any wearable at CES 2015

The Consumer Electronics Show is ground zero for wearable computing introductions—but they may all be missing a key point about what people really want in a smartwatch.

montblanc smartwatch band
Credit: Montblanc

As the world converges on Las Vegas this week for the Consumer Electronics Show, expectations for new smartwatches are running high. But the technology companies’ thunder may have been stolen by a relatively low-key announcement last week from Montblanc, a luxury pen maker branching out into watches, leather pieces, jewelry, fragrance, and eyewear.

In what smacks of “why didn’t I think of that?” the company announced not a smartwatch, but a smart watchband! The Montblanc e-Strap attaches to your Montblanc TimeWalker Urban Speed Chronograph watch and includes a small 0.9-inch, 128x36 monochrome OLED touchscreen display that vibrates and displays alerts from your smartphone for incoming calls and messages. It also works as a fitness tracker and lets you control multiple smartphone functions, like playing a song or snapping a picture. Its lithium-ion battery is said to go five days between charges from the built-in a micro-USB charging port. Cost is €250 euros (~$300) for the band, or €450 for an upcoming standalone “bracelet.”

I haven’t seen the device in person (not sure if anyone outside the company has), and it’s way too soon to know how well it works. But there are three big reasons the e-Strap—or at least the concept behind the e-Strap—changes the smartphone game:

1. It comes from a recognized fashion/luxury brand

While Montblanc may not be the league of a Rolex or Cartier or the other big names of fine watches, it’s still a brand associated with luxury and exclusivity, far more at home in boardrooms than the cheap plastic housing most smartwatches and fitness trackers.

Sure, Apple may have graduated into being a upscale brand, but its success means it has to take a relatively mass-market approach. And as faithful readers already know, I’m not a big fan of the initial Apple Watch designs—I think they’re big and clunky. I’m sure Apple will improve in this area over time, but the folks in Cupertino have a long way to go to catch up with Switzerland in this regard.

2. It utilizes both sides of your wrist

This seems obvious, but most smartwatches use only the top, while most fitness bands are recommended to go on the bottom of your wrist. As exemplified by the Fitbit Surge and Microsoft Band, I like the idea of melding the two approaches, putting the watch where it belongs and the smart functions where they belong.

3. It adds functionality without removing traditional watch functionality and status markers

This could be the most important point, one that most smartwatch makers don’t seem to realize. Just as cars do a lot more than take people from here to there, watches do a lot more than tell time. Watches indicate many things about the people who wear them, from their style and personal taste to their wealth and status. And few people are going to abandon their investments in expensive, iconic wrist wear.

Like it or not, cheap plastic smartwatches and fitness bands send their own kinds of social and status messages. Done right, adding “smart” functionality to the band doesn’t take away from what people really like about fine watches, while still promising modern tracking and interactive functions.

I don’t know if the e-Strap will deliver on that promise, but I think the concept is brilliant.

See also: Samsung's Galaxy Gear and the problem with smartwatches

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