The Olio smartwatch wants to save you from notification hell

29 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Former Apple, NASA and Pixar developers launch beautiful Olio smartwatch.

But the San Francisco startup insists that now is a good time to start taking orders for its “boutique” smartwatches, which cost $595 to $750 each, because the company focused on the reasons people buy and wear watches. “No one buys a Rolex to know what time it is,” Jacobs said. “Five years from now, people are going to buy these products for the same reason they buy watches today — style, quality and brand. The Apple Watch is a high-tech timepiece from a powerhouse company, but what do you call a smartwatch designed by some of the brightest alum from companies like Google, Pixar, HP, NASA, Movado and, of course, Apple?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.

No one wants to wear a fashion accessory made by the company that makes their washing machine.” Whether Olio succeeds or fails remains to be seen, but the startup believes its smartwatches are designed to answer a fundamental question that often eludes Silicon Valley startups — does the technology help or complicate the daily lives of consumers. 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 sleek smartwatch has a promising advantage of standing out in an increasingly saturated market if it’s all-star team of founders, designers and developers is any indication. Analysts believe Apple will sell millions of Watches, which will cost $350 to more than $10,000 each, just because the Cupertino company has so many rabid fans. Co-founded by Steven Jacobs, Evan Wilson and AJ Cooper, the San Francisco-based startup is taking on the smartwatch industry with a clear objection: It wants to save you from a notifications nightmare. While Olio’s watches do have touch screens—these aren’t like the “horological smartwatches” that some Swiss brands are working on—the company is essentially entering the market without an ecosystem.

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. Olio, however, is starting with a total of 1,000 limited-edition watches that will ship this summer, available with steel bracelets or Italian leather straps. Rather than it acting like another smartphone for the wrist, it’s purpose is to filter out distractions and only notify you on important matters (i.e., it won’t distract you). 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. Unlike the moving array of apps found on an Apple Watch face, Olio puts apps, calendars and phone notifications into a “temporal stream” visible on the watch face along with analog clock hands.

The company argues that current smartwatches are too overwhelming, so rather than trying to build up functionality over time, Olio is focusing on dealing with notifications in an intelligent way. 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. And rather than pushing out every notification and update coming your way, Olio packages everything in a series of streams that let you look at what you’ve missed and what’s on your plate for the rest of the day.

The plan is to have a system that learns what you actually care about, and sorts alerts into two streams—past and future—that you can sift through. 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. Olio does want to offer controls for third-party connected home products, such as lights, thermostats, and door locks, but here the details are murky.

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. And Olio promises two full days of battery life under heavy use, and two more days in an offline mode when it will function like a regular watch. (Apple says the Watch will have about 18 hours of battery life under normal use) But Jacobs believes his company offers one big difference that will separate it from the pack: the Olio works with either Apple’s iPhone or a Google Android. “We think it’s absolutely ridiculous to chose your fashion accessories based on the phone ecosystem you belong to today, which could change in two years,” said Jacobs, who has hired designers from Apple, Google, HP and Pixar. Building on the “smart home” trend bubbling up across the industry, the Olio can also work as a hub for products like thermostats, lights, garage doors and speakers, so you can tap the watch’s display to control these products. Even though wristwatch sales declined when people started using their cell phones as timepieces, there are still about 1.1 billion watches sold every year, according to a report by analyst Nick Spencer of ABI Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y. 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. Among the other things its doing differently: Olio hasn’t jumped on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to gain visibility, nor has it embraced Google’s Android Wear platform like most smartwatches out there (it runs on its own OS).

The other half of the market, which already includes electronics giants like Samsung and fitness trackers like Garmin and Fitbit, is getting more crowded. While the circular look is easy on the eyes and looks more like jewelry than a mini computer, it’s also rugged — it promises to handle soaks in the pool and dust like a champion.

Spencer noted that electronics makers LG and Huawei unveiled “stunning looking and features packed” smartwatches at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Why this matters: This notion of not needing apps does seem convenient for a company that’s too small to build its own platform, but Olio’s watches could still be useful if the system for handling notifications is up to snuff. 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. Besides, if we assume that everyone and their mother will soon be wearing the same handful of Apple Watch variants, the small-batch smartwatch is one way to maintain some individuality without spending $10,000. About 30 million to 50 million luxury watches are sold annually, mainly from Swiss watchmakers, but it’s unclear whether the new breed of smartwatches “will augment or cannibalize” that market, Spencer wrote.

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. Last week, Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer announced it will work with Google and Intel to produce an Android Wear smartwatch, becoming “the first of the Swiss watchmakers to be seduced by the allure of the smartwatch opportunity,” Ben Wood, research chief for CCS Insight, wrote in a report. 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. Olio is also making a cloud-based personal assistant feature called Olio Assist, which is supposed to surface and respond to notifications that are the most important to you based on a Pandora-style learning algorithm.

On the software side of things, Olio’s watches comes with a companion smartphone app to manage settings and link to other connected devices, the ability to track and display fitness metrics (number of steps, etc.), and display notifications like text messages and email. 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.

I’m looking forward to seeing this thing in action and I think it will be a great hit with the Anything But Google/Apple crowd hungry for a third player in the burgeoning wearables world. 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 run through the phone. “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. 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. 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 product category. “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.

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 says the designs the company has made match the look and feel of the respective collections, but that if it was something that customers really wanted, they might add it later on. 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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