Friday, 27 February 2015

Runcible — Tech's answer to the antique pocket watch

Inspiration for the Runcible
photo: Arne Nordmann (norro), Germany
Yesterday, a CNET article on the upcoming launch of Runcible, a new vision for the smartphone, captured my imagination. Based on the design of the pocket watch, it is the brain-child of Monohm, a Berkeley, California, company.

I have often said that the cell-phone (or mobile, if you prefer) is today's pocket watch. The pocket watch was rapidly becoming an object of the past. When I was fifteen years old, I worked at Pearl Cross Antiques in St Martin's Court, off Charing Cross Road in London. English gold pocket watches were a specialty (with clocks, jewellery and silver). Unlike Swiss or American pocket watches, the English pocket watch has a single backplate to the movement which guarantees a much longer life for the watch. The main point of the Swiss innovation of multiple backplates was to produce watches more cheaply.

What first caught my attention in the CNET article was the exotic wooden back to the smartphone. The first example illustrated was from a burl, and appears to have been taken from where a burl meets the roots. One word came to mind: craftsmanship. That is the word I most associate with those gold pocket watches at Pearl Cross. We used to have them restored to their original state by several London craftsmen. If the watch case had been engraved for a previous owner, that engraving was not polished off as is a practice of mediocre jewellers, but our craftsman used to smelt gold to the exact colour of the original and the he would flood the engraving with the gold and then polish the case down to its original thickness as checked by his micrometer; If the watch had a damaged dial, it was re-enamelled; If the watch needed new parts, they were original and purchased from a shop nearby which had been supplying new parts since the eighteenth century. The shop still retained its angled mirrors beneath the windows which directed daylight into the interior in those days before electric lights. When we sold a watch, it came with a lifetime guarantee for the new owner. Sadly, the shop premises lease ran out after I visited it again in 1999 and is now part of the upscale Sheekey's fish and seafood restaurant, which was a favorite of my boss, Dennis Strange.

Monohm has married retro with innovation. Imagine focusing Runcible's featured camera by revolving the whole smartphone! Don't you just hate lever zooms and automatic focuses on some digital cameras? I still like the manual focus ring of my old Nikon Fa (although, practically, I hardly ever use the camera anymore). With its web-based apps that can can turn your smartphone into a speedometer for your bike or a distance calculator to strap on your arm it has greater functionality than you might expect. Even its GPS system is an innovation. But what happens to that beautiful case you bought when version 2.0 of the smartphone comes out? No problem, the new "movement" can be purchased on its own and just popped into the older case.

A smartphone that will become an heirloom while still being current. This is old-style craftsmanship not planned obsolescence. It brought back fifty year-old memories of those beautiful old pocket watches in a prestigious West End London antique shop. It's going on my wish-list, and yes, you will be able to afford it as is planned to sell for less than the average smartphone.

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