The Next Big Thing

Hong Kong smartwatch start-up gearing for friendly competition with Apple

Hong Kong-based Kairos Watches executive says the success of Apple's watch will keep the sector - and brands like his - ticking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2015, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 1:04pm

Hong Kong-based technology start-up Kairos Watches is betting that the success of the new Apple Watch could prove a boon for its own ambitions in the global market for smart wearable devices.

“We love the Apple Watch,” Sam Yang, the founder and managing director of Kairos Watches told the South China Morning Post in a recent interview. “As more companies launch a smartwatch, this industry as a whole will only strengthen.”

On March 9, US time, Apple will officially launch the Apple Watch at a media event in California after the long-awaited product was first briefly introduced last September. It has already drawn attention from competitors and consumers all over the world.

Research firm Strategy Analytics last Friday predicted that total global smartwatch shipments will grow 511 per cent to 28.1 million units this year, up from 4.6 million last year. It estimated shipments of the Apple Watch will reach 15.4 million units to lead the industry.

Hong Kong businessman Yang's optimism also stems from the high interest generated by smartwatch purveyors at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, last week.

In particular, new smartwatch models exhibited at the event by the likes of Huawei Technologies and LG Electronics generated plenty of glowing publicity ahead of the formal launch of the Apple Watch collection this week and its expected availability next month.

At the same event, Kairos exhibited the prototypes of its mechanical smartwatch hybrid and T-band, a smart wearable accessory designed to replace the band on regular analogue watches.

The company is scheduled to exhibit its products again in the annual Baselworld, the world’s biggest watch and jewellery trade show, held from March 19 to 26 in Switzerland.

A number of traditional watchmakers and start-ups are also expected to unveil their take on a smartwatch at this event.

“We feel that as more and more people try out smartwatches, they will see the benefits these devices bring,” Yang said. “It’s our hope that some of these customers would decide to upgrade to a smartwatch that offers a bit more style, quality and monetary value, and purchase a Kairos product in the future.”

Kairos plans to launch its products by the middle of May. A report on smart wearable devices published by Endeavour Partners in July show that a smartwatch goes beyond being a fitness and activity tracker because of its communications-oriented user interface.

Application developers can help turn smartwatches into virtual intelligent assistant, just like Siri’s function with the iPhone and iPad. They can also be used for control and automation, like interacting with the lights in a house and a user’s smartphone.

Yang, a Korean-Canadian entrepreneur, has adopted a name for his privately funded company that shows its focus on taking advantage of changing market conditions.

“Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means the right or opportune moment,” he said.

Yang says an opportunity exists for Kairos to fill what he sees as a gap that in the nascent smartwatch market.

“The Apple Watch is the catalyst to ignite the global smartwatch market,” said Neil Mawston, the executive director at Strategy Analytics. “Apple’s famous brand, loyal fan base, deep retail presence and extensive apps ecosystem will ensure healthy uptake for its smartwatch.”

Yang, however, said there was “a huge problem with many smartwatches because 80 to 90 per cent of the watch face shows a black screen” in between electronic messages or alerts that a user receives.

“There’s also a whole bunch of traditional watchmakers whose branding and craftsmanship could not be easily replaced in the market by a smartwatch from the same company that made your refrigerator,” Yang said

The Kairos mechanical smartwatch hybrid, which has been available for pre-order since May last year through the company’s website, features a modern chronograph design and a sporty 46mm case diameter.

It also measures 16mm thick to accommodate the electronics circuit board with microprocessor, battery, mechanical movement and other components, including a transparent organic light-emitting diode as its display. This face allows the showing of notices and messages on top of the traditional watch face.

Kairos users also have the option to upgrade the electronic components, including the battery, for US$99. Prices for these watches built with the Japanese mechanical movement range from US$549 to US$699. Limited-edition models with Swiss mechanical movement are offered from US$1,039 to US$1,249.

The operating system used by Kairos is a customised version of the so-called FreeRTOS platform. “It is a very stable system, the same one used by Pebble for its smartwatches. This makes Kairos compatible with Apple, Android and Microsoft smartphones,” Yang said. “So a change of phone doesn’t require a change of smartwatch.”

The company’s adjustable rubber T-band accessory offers the most opportunity for Kairos to form alliances with traditional watchmakers, especially those from Switzerland.

Its adapters allows the T-band to fitted onto various band sizes of watches. The accessory, which is worn like a bangle, has a display on which applications such as WhatsApp and Twitter can be used, and built-in sensors to track health and fitness. The design implements a clamp-style locking mechanism for comfort, instead of a traditional clasp design.

“We’re now taking with a lot of companies. By the time of Baselworld, we hope to sign up between 20 to 30 brands,” Yang said. “We see the most eager brands to partner with us are those with a portfolio of watches that are sold at under US$500.”

Yang expected further negotiations with the major Swiss traditional watch brands, which testing the market with their own creations.

Tag Heuer, part of LVMH, plans to launch a smartwatch developed outside of Switzerland. Mont Blanc, a Richemont group brand, has announced a smart band called e-Strap for use with its traditional watches.