Before I can even come back from grabbing him a glass of water, Steve Jacobs has basically turned our Verge West meeting room into a jewelry store. The ornate carrying case he brought with him is nearly overflowing with expensive-looking watches. The morning light beams down through a nearby window, illuminating every little detail, of which there are many. The bevy of clasps, links, and smoothed leather buckles all glint back up, all except for one made of suede. Jacobs excitedly tells me he’s only just cracked the code for that material in the past week thanks to a new production process. It’s a secret, he says, though he gives me a hint: there’s more than one way to skin a cow.
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. 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.
None of these things seem to faze Jacobs, who’s done a stint at Apple and a number of other leading consumer electronics companies over the years. As he tells it, when companies have a general idea of what they want to do, they rope him in to design that new product’s architecture. 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. He rattles off a similar list of big name companies where he's plucked his team from too.
Pedigree or not, this is a new product from a company nobody’s ever heard of that initially will only be made in a batch of 1,000. That's being split up in two lines of $595 and $745 smartwatches designed to work with your iPhone or Android phone. Its main purpose is to look good, but also to do digital triage on the often incessant flow of emails, text messages, app notifications, and alerts. This is not a new thing in the world of smartwatches, but an obvious and growing problem that nobody has quite figured out.
The Olio hardware is large, round, and weighty, though it feels very nice. I have smaller wrists, so it felt like overkill, even after wearing it for only a several-minute stretch. 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. On the backside, which the company would not let me photograph, is a thin layer of glass with a metal ring that allows capacitive charging. There are no buttons or ports, just watch.
The first thing I noticed about it though was the bezel. For one, it’s got a blue-green glimmer. It also accentuates the oddly shaped screen, which is not a circle but a wine glass shape with the top lobbed off. Jacobs says that this is a basic limitation in current circuit boards for displays, and that everyone in the industry is trying to solve it. But also that the company has developed an initial design that it believes to be optimal for a screen of this size. That may be true, but it makes for a ugly blemish on what is otherwise an attractive watch.
The Olio is rated to run about two days on a single charge, but can be stretched out a third using a special power reserve mode that turns off the Bluetooth radios and ceases all notifications, making it nothing more than a standard timepiece. It also recharges in just an hour. 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.
But the reason to get one now, Jacobs says, is the system his team has created to conquer the sea of incoming information. He refers to it as a personal assistant, but is careful to note that it’s not another Siri or Cortana. With Olio, you get a cold, hard triage nurse instead. Olio’s promise is that its assistant learns you and your habits over time. It has a sense of where you are and what you’re doing so it can tailor when it bugs you and when it doesn’t.
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. If there’s an important message, it shows up right on your watch. But at all other times, you swipe left on the watch face to see what’s coming up, and swipe right to see a log of stuff you missed. 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. In fact, I didn’t get to see much of how this system will work because it’s still being built. 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. It should blend in the background not only in terms of how it feels, but how it functions. 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. In part because there are two very basic or otherwise obvious things that you cannot do with it out of the gate. One is changing the digital watch face to something else of your choosing. 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.
The other missing feature is any sort of fitness or activity tracking capabilities. 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. The services that develop it are nascent. And the sensors for tracking everything are not yet accurate."
"Those products end up in drawers."
Worse yet, Jacobs says, trying to cobble sensors onto a traditional-looking watch means a compromise in the way it feels. "When you put it on your wrist, we want it to be comfortable, you want to have breathing room. You don’t want to have to cinch something down, or squeeze along the skin like a rubber band," he says. "It does not make sense to do that in this product class. We think there are going to be specialized products that do that. 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. Jacobs explains it more succinctly when I press him on why anybody should buy this versus something made by companies like Google and Apple. 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. Anything that we use is highly leverageable [sic] and open today, and only appears to becoming more open," Jacobs says. Besides, he adds "consumers never want just one of anything. Especially when it comes to fashion, or style, or personal expression."