Olio Devices CEO: How Apple, Google and Samsung are getting wearables wrong

We talk luxe connected watches and personal assistants with Olio's founder

"Apple is a computer company. Google is an advertising company, Samsung is a vertically integrated manufacturing company. Jawbone does a great job creating new product spaces and then they kind of get kicked out of them. Pebble is a maker software company but where are they going to go when Samsung starts ramping up its manufacturing and competing at the same price points as Pebble?"

It's easy to see why Steve Jacobs, founder and CEO of Olio Devices, has just closed a $10.2 million round of investment for his luxury watch company.

He's convincing. If we had $10 million, we would probably have thrown it at him by the end of our interview about Olio's progress on its first smartwatch, the Model One, and the new gold and rose gold-clad collections announced today.

Style, quality and brand

The product designer and engineer ticks off high profile devices he has developed, at agencies and during a stint at HP, as well as companies that he's worked with, which reads like a who's who of Silicon Valley. So why go it alone? Two years ago, none of the world's biggest tech brands seemed like the right fit for Jacobs' particular vision of what wearable tech should be.

We don't consider ourselves a wearable tech company

"I decided that none of these big companies really had the right core DNA, the core chemistry, to be what I would consider to be a meaningful player," he told Wareable. Not that he sees Olio Devices, which he co-founded with Evan Wilson and AJ Cooper in San Francisco in 2013 and now boasts hires from Movado, Pixar, Apple and Google, as a wearable tech company.

"That's along the lines of why people buy watches to begin with - which is style, quality and brand. We don't consider ourselves a tech company at all. And we typically don't want to refer to ourselves as wearable. To be honest, we see ourself as a connected devices company."

Throughout our chat, Jacobs picks apart the various failings of his tech giant rivals in the early attempts at creating desirable, useful wearables. An Olio Devices Crash Course on Smartwatches emerges.

The one size fits all approach won't work in the long term, even for Apple.

"They built their name on this MacBook Pro, for example, which looks just as appropriate in a dorm room as it does in a boardroom," he said. "When you think about fashion, that's almost the exact opposite of what you'd want. You don't want the CEO of some company to be sporting the same watch as some frat boy in college. You want that differentiation. And it might be the same person separated by 15 or 20 years but that person wants to express something unique about themselves at different phases of their lives."

At the other end of spectrum, an open platform like Google's Android Wear, which includes its contextual assistant Google Now, is trying to serve us ads and get us to buy products whereas Olio Assist, its assistant, only wants to save us time.

"We're not an advertising company like Google. We are solely focused on what is going to make the most difference in our wearer's lives. For us, it's no difference whether you like it or don't like it. You can do whatever you want. And that's something that's kind of unique to us.

"I hate to throw Google under the bus but everyone is starting to get at this point that they are an advertising company at their core. So their interests are not always purely aligned with that of our consumer."

Beautiful, upgradeable, helpful

In fact the only company that makes Jacobs go quiet is the mention of Tag Heuer's first smartwatch due to launch later this year for $1,200. That's right in the price range Olio Devices is aiming at with its Model One collections which are priced between $595 and $1,395 depending on which material and strap you choose.

There's memories captured in the exterior of the watch

He talked of a gap between the $1,000 price point and the $10,000 price point in smartwatches right now - Apple of course has reportedly cornered both at this early stage. All Jacobs has to offer on Tag entering the luxury smartwatch space is: "we'll see." Something tells us that despite Tag choosing Android Wear, Jacobs sees its first smartwatch as one of the first products that might actually do things in what he refers to as a "meaningful way." As for the rest of Android Wear, he sees no competition from Samsung, Sony and Motorola above $500.

Buyer's guide: How to choose the right smartwatch

So we know what wearable tech shouldn't be - non-threatening but non personal in design like Apple, trying to serve us ads like Google - but what should it be? Olio Devices is building smartwatches that hope to be beautiful - in a bold way - upgradeable, and helpful, primarily in saving us time.

The luxury materials, bespoke UIs for each collection and limited edition releases of the Model One so far speaks to Olio's understanding of fashion as self expression. The components, including the custom battery, have been built both to last five years, instead of one or two, and to be an upgradeable core that can be serviced every two to five years.

"We wanted to make sure that the aesthetic part of the watch, the outside of the case, which is going to show that scratch from when you got a little too tipsy at that birthday party, remains," said Jacobs.

"There's memories captured in the exterior of the watch. The insides need to be serviced and we wanted to do that in the same way that the traditional Swiss watch industry has for centuries. We can replace the core electronics with the latest and greatest so you always feel that your watch is functioning at the peak of its ability. But at the same time, you're maintaining the stories which go along with the outside of your watch."

And Olio Assist, its cloud-based personal assistant, which can tap into Siri and Google Now, is a pared back service which learns your preferences and can be micro-managed to suit your schedule.

This software, which will, of course, be upgraded over the air, is really a chance for Olio Devices to show that it understands how we want smartwatches to fit into our lives. There's a timeline of alerts and bits of info Assist thinks you will be interested in, split into past and future Streams. And since it is "significantly more focused" than Google Now, Jacobs believes that it is more useful as a virtual assistant.

"Say you walk to work on a beautiful, sunny day in New York," he said. "Right when you're about to leave, Olio Assist will say: 'Hey, I noticed you walked to work today but it's probably going to rain when you walk home, I looked around and Uber is a little bit less expensive than Lyft, do you want me to call you an Uber so you don't get caught in the rain?' That's truly a useful question for a personal assistant to ask. But if it asks you ten times and every single time you say no then get the hint buddy, listen to what I'm saying and stop suggesting that for me."

Model Two will be a choice, not must-have

Jacobs mentioned a Model Two, which Olio is hoping to launch in 2016, but only to say that it won't make the Model One obsolete and instead of being a replacement, as a consumer electronics company would market it, it will simply broaden the variety of sizes, styles and materials.

"What we're focused on is offering a wider variety of styles so you can choose the one that is just the perfect fit for you," he said. "It will be no surprise to anyone that we're looking at - how do we make a core architecture that is able to deliver the same level of functionality and the same level of battery life and user experience in a smaller form factor? Or using other, more sophisticated materials, or to allow for other design languages. That's really what we continue to experiment and develop."

As for the next few months, Jacobs noted that Olio will probably begin to sell its watch bands separately around the time the Model One (should) ship in September. Right now, the bespoke watch faces can't be swapped out but this is another feature that the founder isn't ruling out for the future.

Wareable verdict: Mondaine Helvetica 1 Smart review

As for apps, Uber and Spotify were listed as some of the big names that will be displayed on Olio Model Ones by the end of the year and though we don't get any details, Jacobs is excited about some specialised third party app functionality that the company is now dedicated resources to. Quality will trump quantity, though.

"We think when a service is relevant and useful to you, it should be very quickly and easily accessible to you and you shouldn't have to look through a bunch of other shit to find it. Simple as that."


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