Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On the watch and the workhorse

In mature, competitive markets flooded with products, many brands come and go. Last week, though, two companies came to New York City to celebrate milestone anniversaries of their electronic products. Lenovo celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ThinkPad as Casio marked the 30th anniversary of the G-Shock watch. The notebook PC remains among the most versatile and complex devices consumers use today while the watch is one of the simplest. Yet some commonality between these two products may include lessons for other technology products that wish to remain around for decades.

Durability

Perhaps one aid to building brands that last is building products that actually last. Both companies pointed out the toughness of their products. Indeed, the idea behind G-Shock was to build "an unbreakable watch" and the company continues to roll out new approaches to protect its timepieces against impact, vibration and centrifugal force. Casio executives showed off all kinds of watch-torture devices, including a live demonstration in which it survived being shot out of a watch cannon. (Warning: Do not try this with your watch cannon at home.)

It's been a while since we've seen Lenovo ads highlight the ThinkPad's "roll cage" and other safety measures as it has played up its "For those who do" campaign. While ruggedness isn't quite as intrinsic to its laptop, Lenovo relied instead on anecdotes about the ThinkPad's resilience. A guest speaker noted that seven of them were subject to the harsh environment, cramped accommodations and sometimes the wandering limbs of rookie astronauts on the Space Shuttle.

Design

The ThinkPad sub-brand is so strong that it has even survived a corporate adoption from a parent (IBM) that was once synonymous with PCs

Many years ago, the designer of an early smartwatch defended the girth of the wearable device by noting that bulky watches were "in." He was referring primarily to the G-Shock, which not only has several distinctive facades, but also has branched out into a Baby-G sub-brand as well as collaborations with several designers. A Casio presentation mentioned one collector who has over 200 Casio G-Shocks. That's a lot for a watch designed not to break.

The ThinkPad sub-brand is so strong that it has even survived a corporate adoption from a parent (IBM) that was once synonymous with PCs. Lenovo went into more depth about the design of its ThinkPad, including its well-regarded keyboard and signature TrackPoint -- a user-input device once offered by several Windows laptop makers including Dell and Toshiba, but for which Lenovo is now the main champion among major brands. Lenovo even talked about the meaning of the color black, which it identified with power and sex, and the decision to put the angled ThinkPad logo in the corner of the lid, a contrast to the central placement used by rivals.

Of course, no discussion of ThinkPad design history would be complete without mentioning the "Butterfly" expanding keyboard on the ThinkPad 701C which, despite landing a space in the permanent collection in the New York's Museum of Modern Art, was never implemented on another model as screen sizes grew. It's surprising that Lenovo or a licensee hasn't sought to bring it back in this era of 7-inch tablets and smartphones.

Development

While the watch and the notebook have become staples in many of our lives, new converged devices are challenging their supremacy. Casio and Lenovo embraced their role of brand caretakers to show that their products won't rest on their respective legacies. The rise of smartphones, all of which can relay the time among so much other pertinent information, has made the wristwatch more about fashion than function. In response, a string of smartwatches from companies such as Pebble, MetaWatch and Cookoo have attracted funding via Kickstarter. These watches connect to smartphones and sometimes use advanced displays to show a host of glance-able data.

Casio, too, is hopping on the Bluetooth bandwagon with its forthcoming GB6900, but its connected watch will retain the same display as current G-Shocks, relying on its paired partner for more mundane tasks such as automatic resetting of time depending on the time zone and alerts for when the watch gets out of range from the smartphone, hinting that one may have left it behind.

As for Lenovo, the tablet threatens to disrupt several of the ThinkPad's characteristics such as its TrackPoint and keyboard (as well as the software library advantages it enjoys supporting Windows). But there was no grousing about Surface as Lenovo unveiled its next ThinkPad tablet, which will support Windows 8. Rather, it teased hybrid products in the wings.

The G-Shock GB6900 Bluetooth watch and the ThinkPad Tablet 2 with Windows 8 both represent relatively low-risk plays for the venerable brands. Whether they are enough to keep both product lines growing as their categories are under siege is a drama that will play out in the decades to come.


Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.