Saturday, September 15, 2012

iPhone 5 is the Rolex of Smartphones.

Watching the iPhone 5 keynote, I was noticing some similarities to a particular watch brand.

Apparently, a Wall Street Analysts seem to come to the same conclusion. (

The "Apple's iPhone 5 praised as 'a Rolex among a sea of Timexes'" is being floated around the blogosphere so I figure I put in my few cents of words here.

However, my conclusion is based on fit-n-finish, build quality and construction rather than the merit of the OS or technology of the phone itself. I also think Apple's playbook parallel Rolex.

I am a watch collector and have been collecting watches over 20 years now. I have a pretty nice collection of Swiss mechanical watches (see above) and enjoy the fine precision manufacturing. I appreciate the heft, feel and I am still amazed at the manufacturing marvel of a hundred moving parts that keep time to high precision and tolerance. You have watches that beat at 21,000 - 36,000 bps that ONLY loses 0.5 to 1 seconds a day. You have hundred of parts that work in unison to make it all work. That is amazing considering the technology is over 200 years old and often pieced together by human hands make it more meaningful than the fastest computers. Imagine a car engine running at high-rpm day in day out! I simply marvel at that complexity and reliability. I own all sorts of brands - Omega, IWC, Rolex,Panerai. Watch collectors are the oldest forms of nerds!

I also own a lot of gadgets from different brands, operating systems, and platforms. I carry both Android and iOS devices so I tend to be platform agnostic. However, there is no denying the level of detail and attention to little hidden things that Jonathan Ives put into his work. He cares about how things look and work even when they are hidden from the naked eye. (see: )

So when I saw the milling video of the iPhone 5, the diamond cutting of the chamfer edges, the inclusion of sapphire for the camera lens, I thought I was looking at a Swiss watchmaker manufacture's promotional video. In fact, Apple even states on their website,

After watching the video of Ives, I thought I was looking at a Rolex video. Specifically in this screen shot.

I have to admit, I am impressed in terms of just raw manufacturing of materials. My Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Tab feel extremely flimsy. The iPhone 5 is suppose to raise the bar in terms of craftsmanship in material quality and finish from previous iPhones. I cant wait to feel and touch first hand.

Jonathan Ives must be a fellow watch collector because there are so many minute details you wouldn't notice unless you have discerning eyes. He really gets it.

Now back to Rolex and the similarities between the two companies.

(my 4th generation GMT Master II green arrow)

Rolex watches are archetypes of their specific genres.

The Submariner is the classic diver's watch that is over 50 years old in design and highly imitated.  It was worn by Sean Connery's Bond, issued by the British Royal Navy and countless explorers. The same goes for the GMT Master, the Daytona and the Explorer models. The GMT is the archetype international multizone traveller/pilots watch. The Daytona is the archetype sports chrono (some will argue the Speedmaster).

Rolex watches also get a bad rap due to the diamond encrusted Datejust/Presidents worn by nouvelle riche celebrities and rappers.

Rolex is also highly heated debated among watch collectors with equal praise and scorn. I hear the same "iSheep" arguments against Rolex collectors as un-informed and conformists.

But the point remains, they are the archetype of their genre and the key word is "archetype."
They define the category they are in. The Submariner is the epitome of a diver's watch and the design has endured 50 years uninterrupted with iterative changes. It was considered to be the first waterproof diver's watch (which again is up for debate).

To me, a Submariner will be iconic as a Porsche 911 or a Leica M camera. Those designs never really change and it makes them a true testament to the genius of their conception. When you go 50 years like that, you certifiably become a timeless design.

Many companies have tried to make similar watches with different design but they are all pretty much derivative of the formula - stainless steel, single cut casing, rotating bezel for timer, thick crown guards, waterproof crown, white large hands on dark face for legibility. Hence, the Submariner will always hold the crown as the archetype diver's watch.

Most watch collectors I know will have at least one "Sports Oyster" model in his collection because those watches do represent precision engineering and often have great historical provenance despite the bad rap of the diamond encrusted Presidents have on the brand.

The iPhone is also the archetype of the multi-touch slab phone design just like the original Sony walkman was the archetype of the portable cassette player of the 80s. Can you name me the model for Sanyo's, Panasonic or Toshiba's portable "walkman players" of that era? In ten years, no one is going to remember a  HTC Hero, LG Optimus, Toshiba Thrive but everyone will remember the iPhone regardless of how they like or hate the device.

Once can also say the Macbook Air is the archetype of the ultrabook form factor despite the fact the Sony 505 precedes it. The design has become so iconic that one immediately associates a wedge aluminum laptop with black island chicket keyboard to an Air.

Now for other similarities between Rolex and Apple.

Rolex produces over 800,000 oyster models with chronometer certified movements a year. They have the highest volume of Chronometer COSC certification for their line-up. Apple has the highest selling single model smartphone.

Rolex, in the recent decade, have vertically integrated; buying up their suppliers and consolidating
their parts. Apple is doing the same with SOC designers and mapping companies.

Rolex is a true in-house Swiss manufacture; meaning they design their own movements and design. Whereas companies like Bell & Ross, Breitling, and Tag uses standard ETA off-the-shelf movements (ETA 2892 movements) and embellishes them ornamentally.  A majority of the watch "brands" you see in retail outlet are not "manufactures" and this parallels the many smartphone manufactures that use an "off-the-shelf" operating system (Android) and off-the-shelf SOCs (Tegra, Omap, Qualcomm S4).
These phone brands will embellish Android with their skins and modifications in the same vein Breitling re-works a standard ETA (Swatch owned) movement. Note, there is nothing wrong with a re-worked based ETA movement.

Apple doesn't use a standard Tegra 3 or OMAP processor. They license from ARM and have their own SoC designers design the CPU (A5/A6) which will eventually be produce by outsource foundries. The A5/A6 is only used by Apple. Apple also use its own "movement" which I call the OS. Like a Rolex Caliber 3x00 movement, iOS is Apple's own prize possession they don't share out to others. This makes Apple highly unique like Rolex. Apple does not farm out its case design or operating system to another company. They have Foxconn manufacture their phones but the design is uniquely Apple. Sure, they use RAM and LCDs from third party the same way Rolex used components from others.

Apple also takes extreme pride in their manufacturing processing. The macbooks are always advertised as being cut from a single block of aluminum. Hence the term unibody.

This is straight out of Rolex's original playbook. In fact, when I saw the manufacturing video for the Macbook Airs, I thought I was watching a Rolex assembly video as well.

The Rolex Oyster case for over 50 years have always been marketed as being cut out of a single block of "904L" steel. I won't get into specific but Rolex uses 904L steel versus the rest of the industry who use vanilla, off-the-shelf 316L steel. My blog is a gadget site so I won't go into the specific of watch manufacturing here.

But I will note Rolex is also unique in their use of Parachrom-hairspring. They did extensive research and design which parallels Apple's "optimization" of their hardware and software marriage.
If you want to get watch nerdy, here is a starter on Rolex's unique hairspring design. They take great pride in this as Apple takes great pride in specific iOS UI interactions. They care about the little details.

Both companies take extreme pride in their manufacturing process. You can tell by the attention to detail in the PCB, motherboard layout of Apple's phones and laptops.

Apple will invest and research in battery chemistry the same way Rolex invest, research, and patent specific lubricant chemistry (lubrication is vital to the reliability of moving parts in a watch).

Apple has the reputation of being the design company in Silicon Valley. Rolex also holds similar creds in terms of their unique Oyster and triplock designs.

Both are volume manufactures that have great control of their supply chain and yield quality. Rolex obviously knows how to run a tight ship considering the high number of COSC movement certifications they get with their high volume of watches. That precision requires high tolerance of manufacturing. In short, both companies know how to ship high quality high-end products in volume.

Both companies have legendary reputations.

Rolex sports watches are known to be indestructible. There are countless stories of Submariners surviving hair-splitting epic stories from falling out of jet planes, to Hollywood depictions of surviving heroic feet of international spies. Rolex are used by famous people such as Chuck Yeager, various astronauts, and celebrities. If you want to be tough guy who consider himself an adventurer/explorer/world traveller, you wear a Submariner or Sea Dweller.

Apple's reputation is in elegant User Interface, ease-of-use, integrated systems of tightly coupled software/hardware. Apple products are also used by celebrities and "hero" designers/photographers/filmmakers. If you want to be in the artsy hip crowd, you use a Mac and iPhone.

They both appeal to their niche customers and both have their stereotyped users.

Like Rolex, Apple's iPhone usually retains a higher resale value. With Rolex, the watch prices always goes up. A Submariner was $200 in 1970. $2200 in 1997. $4500 in 2001. Around $8000 now! Second hand ones are incredibly high. I have a GMT Master I bought for $2200 brand new and have worn for over 15 years that I can easily sell for $4500 because the new one sells for $8500.

Lastly, the biggest similarity is the watch/screen size and how the two companies dealt with it. Rolex only recently caved in to make oversize versions of their watches (Explorer 2/Datejust). Panerai, IWC and Omega have been moving away from 40mm standard watch cases. I think Rolex resisted this change for years because they felt oversized watch case was a passing fad. Apple just recently resisted from moving from a 3.5" screen to a 4.0. Time will tell if both companies made the correct choice.

I can see Apple's main line of argument by not going for a 4.5" screen. You don't want to mess with a good thing. Iterative changes are less disruptive when you have a loyal following. I, myself, can't get over Rolex going to 42mm case design. Hopefully Rolex doesn't do 44-46mm which is way too big for that case design. Like Apple, Rolex is testing the water with only the Explorer 2.

I find it amusing as a gadget nerd and a watch collector that there are these similarities. Could it be Apple is defining itself into the historic hallmark of name brands. Steve Jobs once compared the iPhone 4 to a well crafted Leica camera. I can see where their marketing people are aiming going for. Yet at the same time, both companies understand their customer and this reflected in their slow, iterative changes.

And like Rolex, I know people out there isn't going to like this post on a gadget blog because they don't like Apple or the iPhone. Watches are like gadget religion. You will have haters on both side.

Being the archetype doesn't necessarily makes the iPhone/iPad  better devices vis-a-vis their peers. Being first to market, mass appeal, and derivatively copied designs make them archetype by that definition. The same holds for Rolex. Not everyone is interested in a sports watch. Some may prefer a dress watch like those from IWC, Blancpain, Breguet or Lange.

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