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Tag Heuer takes on Apple with Swiss smartwatch

The Alpine watchmaker has thrown its hat in the ring of the competitve high-tech timepiece market. The moves comes at a time of deep crisis for Swiss manufacturers. But can it hold its own against Apple?

Swiss luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer on Tuesday set out to give Apple a run for its money, unveiling its first-ever smartwatch.

At $1,500 (1,400 euros), the Tag Heuer Connected takes aim at the high end of the rapidly growing market for smart timepieces, currently dominated by the Apple Watch. But unlike its Cupertino-based rival, this watch will run on Google's Android Wear software.

Limited appeal?

While some analysts warn this could limit the wearable's appeal, Chief Executive Jean-Claude Biver brushed off such criticism ahead of the official event in New York.

"Our watch will have almost the same features as an Apple Watch," the CEO teased in the Swiss daily Le Matin.

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At the unveiling in the Big Apple, Biver expressed confidence that by tapping the company's 155-year-old history, and modeling the timepiece on the popular Tag Heuer Carrera, customers would be more than happy to fork out their savings for the Connected model.

"The Apple Watch will never be eternal," the CEO said. "Our watch will. It's a big advantage."

Risky bet?

But in his zeal to conquer the smartwatch market, Biver has sacrificed Tag Heuer's valuable "Swiss made" status in order to team up with US tech titan Intel.

But at a time when the Swiss watch industry is bleeding, this may be the price for survival. Last quarter, the country's manufacturers posted their biggest drop in exports since 2009. Despite this, many of the Alpine nation's traditional watchmakers have chosen to stay on the sidelines of the burgeoning smartwatch market. For Biver, the transatlantic partnership was necessary to stay in the game.

"Many Swiss watch brands are not keen on partnerships," the CEO said, defending the move. "If you want to offer a smartwatch as sophisticated and complete as the Apple Watch, that is practically impossible for a Swiss company alone. We cannot develop microprocessors to that level."

Only the beginning

The fruit of that partnership will debut on shelves in 15 stores across the US, where one thousand units will be immediately available. More will hit Britain, Germany and Japan in the coming days.

Asked about potential sales of the new product, Biver said: "I don't really know...I only have the gut feeling that we're just at the beginning, and that the first (connected) watches are like the first phones we had twenty years ago."

In a surprising twist that raises questions as to whether or not Biver is truly convinced of his own undertaking, Tag Heuer will offer Connected customers to trade in their smartwatch after two years in exchange for a mechanical Carrera. The "upgrade" won't be free, though. Rather, it will cost them exactly the same as the smart version: $1,500.

pad/hg (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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