How a Chinese smartwatch became the surprise hit of Mobile World Congress

Huawei hopes to shake up the wearable world with its new Watch

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Did you hear the one about the Chinese telecom giant that tried to turn into a hip watchmaker?

That’s been one of the more surprising stories to come out of this year’s Mobile World Congress. Huawei, a colossal company that makes most of its money on networking equipment and infrastructure, has launched its most overt play for consumers yet by unveiling its first smartwatch. The Huawei Watch is a circular device that looks closer to a traditional watch than the Moto 360, LG G Watch R, or any other Android Wear product to date. One week before Apple is set to reveal the final details of its own watch, Huawei has presented a very different vision informed by the principles of classical watch design.

The shift is notable for an enterprise-focused company with a name that most Westerners can barely pronounce. Although Huawei has spent the past few years attempting to build up its consumer presence, it hasn’t succeeded in penetrating key markets like the US. But that could change later this year, and the watch should play a key role in terms of getting people to take notice of the company.

“We’re trying to make Huawei a more fashionable brand,” says Richard Yu (pictured), CEO of Huawei’s consumer division. “We’re trying to change our image.” Yu says Huawei’s cachet is already ahead of Chinese competitors like Xiaomi, which he describes as an “ultra low-end” brand “for low-end people.” Despite Yu’s bluster, the odds are still stacked against Huawei, especially in the US. But the company is serious about this struggle.

richard yu huawei

Development of the Huawei Watch was led by Ben Norton, a watch designer that previously worked for Fossil in the US and in Switzerland on brands like Emporio Armani. "I had this opportunity to start designing smartwatches, and had a vision shared by many of my colleagues to have a smartwatch that was very much like a traditional watch," Norton says. "We just believe that the consumer wants an actual watch that feels like a watch."

Huawei is fully behind Norton’s vision. "Samsung already launched its watch, but the design was ugly and no one wanted to buy it," says Yu, who believes that the Huawei Watch’s focus on classicism and authenticity will set it apart. He says the Apple Watch design is "good, it’s okay, but I think their smartwatch design is not a traditional, classical one. Our design is differentiated from them. Many people love this style; people have a loyalty to the tradition."

I’m unconvinced by Huawei’s assumption that people want watches to remain a certain way forever. Watches are technology with a singular purpose; they are also jewelry. When I conducted my interviews with Yu and Norton, I was wearing a square Braun digital watch that does its job of telling time, being comfortable, and looking the way I want it to look. It’s free from the physical constrictions that watchmakers dealt with throughout the century before it was designed, which allows it to exist in the form I want it to. Resorting to conventional forms in the early days of smartwatches is understandable to help familiarize people with the concept, but in the long term I think such designs will prove to be overwrought visual metaphors rendered in steel.

So take this for what it’s worth: the Huawei Watch might not feel like a luxury watch, but it sure does feel like a watch. Describing it as "very minimalist and very clean" and "a watch that you could wear with a tuxedo or a t-shirt," Norton says that it’s aimed at "your typical consumer that would also wear CK or Armani or many other of those brands at the mid-level." That feels like the right approach for smartwatches at this stage. These are devices that will by necessity cost a few hundred dollars, but watches like the Moto 360 and Pebble Steel haven’t matched the level of quality you’d expect from a timepiece at that price point. While the Huawei Watch didn’t blow me away with its craftsmanship, it isn’t something I’d be embarrassed to wear. The stainless steel build and sapphire crystal face go a long way to making it feel like an actual timepiece.

"If it’s too cheap, no one will want to use it," says Yu, noting that the entry-level Apple Watch is made of aluminum. Pricing is yet to be announced, but both Yu and Norton indicate that it will be reasonable; the watch won’t be out until June, and Yu says he’ll be observing Apple’s sales with interest. The CEO also says the company would like to have a presence in traditional watch stores and is considering a model where the watch could be made of more expensive materials, like 18- or 24-karat gold, but feature upgradable components to avoid technical obsolescence.

Another important element is the watch’s size, which Norton says was a very specific and deliberate choice to broaden the potential consumer base. He settled on 42mm, which he calls "a typical size for a traditional watch" by brands from CK to Omega, but also notes that many women wear watches in the "boyfriend" size of around 38 to 42mm. Although a little on the thick side, it’s a much more universal and comfortable design than something like the Moto 360, which is around 46mm and — to my taste, at least — feels like strapping a CD to your wrist. The thin top ring on the Huawei Watch helps, too, allowing the display to dominate the watch’s small footprint.

Norton also believes that the virtual watch faces, of which Huawei is providing over 40, will be a major selling point for the device. "As a traditional watch designer, I very much had the mentality that the case, although important, is essentially the frame around the dial — the painting, so to speak," he says. "Because of the quality of our display, we’re able to show the details of each dial very strongly. And because it’s electronic we have a lot of openness in functionality of how far we can go with the dials." I was surprised by Norton’s enthusiasm here; the Huawei Watch’s screen is good, even great, but it’s still just a screen. I didn’t expect a traditional watch designer to view it as a viable substitute for the most important element of their previous work.

Even if people take to the design, the hardest part may be convincing them to wear a smartwatch in the first place. The Huawei Watch runs Android Wear, an OS that has reportedly shipped on just over 720,000 devices to date. The advent of the Apple Watch could well drive awareness of the category as a whole, just as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad did, but for now it’s far from clear that consumers want to buy into Google’s vision. And even compared to competing Android Wear OEMs like Samsung and Motorola, Huawei has its work cut out when it comes to raising brand awareness.

The most publicity Huawei has received in the US has been when various government officials have described the Chinese company’s equipment as a threat to national security, even though a probe reportedly found no evidence and a leak from Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was, in fact, spying on Huawei in the other direction. Whether the allegations are true is almost beside the point — it’s difficult enough for Chinese companies to build a brand in the US even without innuendo surrounding them. But Huawei plans to plunge into the American smartphone market later this year and is leaning on Google to do so.

In the US, Huawei’s phones will come with stock Android free from the custom software it loads on its Chinese devices — a move designed to assuage fears about the company’s intentions. "In the US we have to do some compromise to avoid any concern," says Yu. "No excuse! If you have a problem you can check with Google. [American customers] trust Google so they can trust Huawei."

The Huawei Watch has turned heads, if nothing else, which could have a knock-on effect for the company’s phones. But even if Huawei’s efforts come to nothing, it’s notable that a company best known for routers and cell towers is even attempting to join the conversation around fashion and high-touch industrial design. Huawei would be one of the least likely US brand successes of all time, but as its Mobile World Congress presence shows, wearable technology is new enough to be anyone’s game.

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