Olio Model One Luxury Smartwatch Wants To Take On Apple Watch

27 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Meet Olio, the next sexy smartwatch to take on Apple.

In a post-iPhone world, saying that apps are useless will probably get you beheaded in the startup community. With all the buzz around Apple Watch and its imminent arrival on store shelves, many start-ups might be leery of introducing their own smartwatch right now.

Plenty of Android Wear and Pebble devices have come and gone and aside from a brief “Huh” I haven’t really let any of them capture my attention. is different. CEO Steve Jacobs explained the gamble by saying that he doesn’t consider his company’s first product to be a “smartphone on a wrist,” but rather as a premium wristwatch with equipped with modern technology to “help you save time.” Many smartwatches already on the market from manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, and Sony are packed with sensors, apps, and services that let users check their watch instead of their phones for all sorts of information. The limited-edition pieces feature “top-of-the-line materials and craftsmanship typically found in high-end Swiss watches,” the company states in a release.

Founded in 2013, Olio is a San Francisco startup coming out of stealth today that’s building all of its hardware and software from scratch–meaning no Android Wear operating system and no Snapdragon application processors. While he was aware of the competition, he used his hardware chops to put together something truly unique: a smartwatch design to combat immediate obsolescence. He says that the company’s Model One watch was designed as the “antithesis of a mass market product, produced to be everything to everyone.” The Olio watches have a very similar look to other higher-end watches, with leather or stainless steel bands and a simple round face, but it streamlines notifications into a “simple and intuitive time-based format” to not overload you with data at any given time.

The philosophy is that a watch doesn’t need to replace other devices, it just needs to help you manage time better. “It’s that same Swiss craftsmanship but with new age functionalities,” said Jacobs, an alum of Apple and Ammunition Group, the design firm behind Apple’s Beats headphones. Additional features include Olio Assist, a cloud-based assistant that offers suggestions based on your preferences, a Control Hub that allows you to adjust thermostats, lights and make payments, and the ability to sync it to your Apple or Android phone. 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.

This is Olio, a new watch company that has eschewed Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and even Google’s open watch platform to make its own everything, right down to the design of the clasp. The wearable will feature a dynamic watchface that will map the busiest parts of your day, and will also be able to stream information across its face. It’s a ballsy move: eschewing Android Wear means turning down a whole tie-in with Android (not to mention apps!), forcing the company to make everything from the ground up.

Instead of an endless list of notifications a la Pebble, the Olio has a cloud-based system that only surfaces important messages as defined by the people you interact with the most. It’s also launching preorders for its product just two weeks before Apple begins taking preorders for the Apple Watch, which carries a smaller price tag (for the most part) and software that arguably does more than Olio is planning to offer when it ships this summer. It will come with its own cloud-based personal assistant, control third-party products like connected household electronics, and most importantly will play nice with iOS and Android devices.

There are only a few screens available and the watch face itself displays the number of interactions per set interval of time using fanning lines of differing length. The insides come packed with almost everything you’d expect from a smartwatch these days: A Bluetooth radio to sync up a phone running on either Android or iOS; an accelerometer and gyroscope (no heart rate monitor); a microphone that integrates with Siri and Google Now. Interesting enough the company has decided that they are making the Model One a limited edition device by producing only 500 units at the start where it will be priced at $600 each. Weather is front and center as are the timing tools, and to interact with any notification you answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe.” Jacobs said he based this system on the memo system President Obama uses.

That includes work at Amazon on its first Fire tablets, the first Pixel notebook from Google, and Beats studio headphones, as well as similar projects for Nest, Fitbit, and GoPro. 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. From the unique charge coil in the “exhibition” back to the handsome screen, Jacobs has taken great care to create a watch that will survive more than a few years. The main screen of the watch is a normal watch face overlaid with information that shows the frequency of notifications you’ve received throughout the day.

The watch sports the standard smartwatch sensors for tracking steps and location, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, and a multispectral ambient light sensor that helps to automatically adjust the screen’s brightness. 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). 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. It’s forged out of 316L stainless steel and comes in either the silver color, or a black that, Jacobs notes, has been finished with the same material used to coat engine turbines. The front is also made out of a strengthened glass that Jacobs says should stand up to doorknobs, sharp corners, and other things watches might have nightmares about.

Apple recently said that the Watch’s battery life will last 18 hours, or “all-day.” Olio’s watches can be ordered with either a wrist band in black or brown Italian leather, brown suede, or a steel or black link bracelet. It’s quite an undertaking and considering everything about this is homegrown – from the interface to the OS to the case – he’s doing a great job. 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.

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. For example, when you head into a meeting, it will flash a message asking if you’d like your notifications held until you’re done and free to review them. The hub screen will also allow you to control services such as music or payments. “There is no app store,” said Olio CEO and founder Steve Jacobs. “Apps make a lot of sense for phones, but apps don’t make sense for connected devices as a category, let alone the small real estate of something you wear on your wrist.

But the last thing we need is another group of apps on smaller screens.” While it’s way too early to tell if Jacobs is right about that, I could imagine having difficult finding apps on the tiny Apple Watch screen after having tried it out at a recent media event. 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). And while the Olio Model One has a clear masculine aesthetic, Jacobs hopes that it will appeal to some women, at least until the company releases its next line of watches. 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 battery and other components can be replaced, and Jacobs noted that his grand plan is to make nearly every part of it modular, so that you could swap out its guts when newer and undoubtedly better technologies come along. 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. He interned at industrial design firm Ammunition Partners, where he says he helped out on Beat headphones, Amazon Fire tablets, Google Chromebook Pixel and a number of other projects for major tech companies. 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. He was offered to join companies like Apple, Google and Samsung, but thought that this space needed an entirely new company to succeed in this new category of product. “Big companies are fundamentally grounded in a core DNA,” said Jacobs. “Amazon is a marketplace, Google is an advertising company and Samsung is a manufacturing company. Alerts have been split up into just two categories: things you missed, and what’s happening in the future, which is similar to how Pebble is structuring its new software for the upcoming Time. Most people don’t want to buy a luxury fashion accessory by the same company that makes their washing machine.” To get to the point where the company currently is, Jacobs said it’s relied only on $4 million it got in a seed round.

You can set up what types of things get pushed into these piles (like emails, text messages, app notifications) with a companion app, which Jacobs would not demonstrate or even show to me on the sly. But Jacobs insists that the training process is a lot like listening to music on Pandora, where you are saying yes or no to whatever comes next. “There’s learning involved, and our learning is very akin to Pandora-style learning by swiping right and left, and over time we’re able to understand what your needed preferences are better than anybody else,” Jacobs says. “This product should disappear. You don’t want it to be constantly interrupting you and getting your attention.” Besides style and software, future expansion is really one of Olio’s big selling points at the moment.

Basically every smartwatch that’s come out in the past year has offered this feature, including Apple’s upcoming creation, but that is intentionally not a feature on the Olio. Jacobs’ explanation for that is, perhaps the more interesting one. “Everyone likes to talk about [fitness], but ultimately those products end up in drawers, and all the research shows you it doesn’t make you healthier,” Jacobs says. “That information is not yet useful.

But when I go out to dinner, or I’m at work, or with family, there’s something I want to wear that makes sense in that moment.” That is either a refreshingly honest take on the current state of smartwatches, or some very clever marketing speak. After all, those companies have more resources to spend on the future of these types of gadgets, and are custom tailoring them to the devices people already own.

They might also one day choose to make it harder for Olio and others like it to work with their products. “There’s nothing that indicates that that should be a problem.

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