"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 14 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Big Hand on One



A global company ties a major

product debut to an unconventional

satellite launch — but

it isn't Motorola and

Iridium. The orbiting device

itself — intended to beam

worldwide messages of goodwill

from the company's fans via

amateur radio bands — is to

be released from the moribund

Russian space station Mir. The

launch and ultimate failure of

the enterprise are discussed in

tremendous depth on the Web.

This latest retrofuturistic

e-mission, dubbed Beatnik, is

real and is brought to you by the

colorful developers of the hip

analog watch. Swatch, as trendy

nowadays as a faded hardback

copy of What Color Are Your

Parachute Pants?, still manages

to live large in its dull Swiss

way, suggesting Harry Lime was

on to something with that

business about the cuckoo

clocks. As chipheads piece

together PDAs, the Force may

actually be with the bumbling

but innovative gearheads at

Swatch, who are rolling out all

manner of new gadgetry into the

final frontier and along the

fourth dimension, time.


And judging from its recent

undertakings, Swatch AG is still

brimming with space cadets.

While few of these schemes have

any discernible relation to

actual financial benefit, and

only stooges with too-fond

memories of their Breakfast

Club days could overlook the

company's faded brand and anemic

.4 percent rate of sales growth,

you don't get to be the No. 1

watchmaker on this planet (and

at least eight others) without

the ability to get synchronized.

Swatch did for the wristwatch

what McDonald's did for the

hamburger, USA Today did for the

American newspaper, and the CIA

did for crack: It grabbed the

credit for turning an

already-accepted product into a

global commodity. The company

has endured and profited,

despite the passing of its

Beanie Baby–esque salad

days. Indeed, Swatch seems to

have about as much longevity,

unusual flair, and usefulness as

the Swiss Guards.



Another similarity between the

Olympic timekeepers and the

Pope's bodyguards is that the

company has no shortage of

scandal. The Beatnik mission was

initially intended to release a

microsatellite of love that

would broadcast messages of

peace and harmony to Swatch

receivers on earth. As it turns

out, the only messages ended up

being the more than 5,000

messages, almost all irate, on

the Beatnik debate section of

Swatch's site. None of these posts

comment on the name, although

Swatch was pretty spunky to

christen its fellow traveler

Beatnik. The Beats, of course,

didn't use the word, which

famous ellipsis-man Herb Caen

coined as a slam. If the

coincidence in names between

Beatnik and sputnik sounds too

good to be random, it is. Caen

was punning on the satellite

when he came up with

the term. We can savor that

irony. In fact, we can buy it

from Swatch.


In the end, Swatch not only

allowed the angry posters

to whale on the company on its

own site, it ended up

complying with the complaints of

those HAMming it up on the

message board. Its man in

space pulled the battery from

the microsatellite and sent it

into orbit, defunct, making the

device, like a Swatch with an

overdesigned dial, revolutionary

but nonfunctional. Swatch

glossed over, or perhaps simply

lied about, the true reason for

the launch's failure. It

claimed it donated its

batteries to a needy satellite,

not mentioning that its

proposed commercial

transmissions were of dodgy

legality and met with widespread

dissent. Given the Mir station's

struggle to maintain its

financial orbit with payloads of

Libyan billionaires and

overweight con men, it makes

sense that Swatch tried to milk

some PR out of the deal; but

with all the practice it's

had lately, the company should

have embraced the failure. On

the playground, wearers of

alpha-watch Baby G often

tolchock those who sport cutesy

timepieces from Swatch's kiddie

line, Flik Flak. And Swatch's

efforts to put together a car

with Mercedes-Benz sputtered as

the partnership unwound. That

the brand persists at all is

something Americans will

probably never fully understand.

In the end, Swatch is one of

those products, like French

hip-hop or tainted Belgian meat,

that moves off the shelves not

because anybody wants it but

because supporting it feels like

some European Union mandate.



That may change as Swatch takes

over not only amateur radio

wavelengths and outer space but

time itself. The company's

patented Internet time is, like

the metric system, an

abstraction whose beauty lies in

its indifference to the way

human beings actually live their

lives or feel comfortable

measuring things. There are a

thousand beats per day and

"@500" (pronounced "five hundred

beats") is noon at headquarters

in Biel, Switzerland. This makes

telling time in the early

morning hours sound like a

description of the intensity of

techno music. The new .beat

watches — the first digital

watches from Swatch —

display this time below the more

passé non-Internet time.

What Internet time has to do

with the Internet has not been

fully explained, but the .beat

watch can be put into a sort of

screensaver mode, in which

little LCD animals appear and

prance about on an otherwise

blank watch face, much like idle

refugees from a Nintendo game.



Back in the less trendy but sadly

necessary field of products you

can actually sell, the company's

telecom division is bringing out

Swatch Talk, a chunky

bracelet that's a cellular

telephone. The sizable

speakerphone clearly isn't for

the limp-wristed, but perhaps it

will find a following among

serious toolers. Those who wear

the gadget will be able to speak

right into their forearm when

they tell telemarketers to fuck

off, leaving their hands free to

deliver an emblematic gesture.

It surely won't be much longer

before the company produces a

full-featured, swearable

computer. Of course, early

adapters may start to feel like

perps as Swatch cuffs load

peripherals to their appendages,

even before digital networking

moves with a tingle up to the

arms. Other devices are coming.

Founder Nicholas Hayek wears six

Swatches regularly and doesn't

even take five of them off when

he steps up to the plate. Didn't

the so-called Beatniks throw

their watches off the roof to

cast their ballots for eternity

outside time? We can only hope

the regulating power of time,

which won out over eternity in a

landslide, continues to work in

its 24-hour, nonproprietary

format and is happy with what

space on our arms it has already

claimed. And we can hope that

the dead Beatnik satellite

doesn't fall on our heads

sometime in the next decade.

courtesy of The Internick


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