The digital transformation of watchmaking

Dial or screen?


June 2017

Dial or screen?

The word “dial” is the kind of linguistic fossil I love to discover. Most words are fossils, in the sense that they bear the imprints of a time long past, such as their Latin roots, or their medieval vowel shifts. But “dial” is a special case that may have arisen from a misconception. So maybe it’s less like a fossil, and more like an old stamp with a misprint.


ccording to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “The word perhaps was abstracted from a phrase such as Medieval Latin rota dialis ‘daily wheel’, and evolved to mean any round plate over which something rotates.” That’s what I mean about the misprint – logically, we should be using a derivative of the word rota now, rather than a descendent of the word for “day”.

Anyway, we know the rest. The word “dial” was subsequently abstracted from the sun dial to designate other more sophisticated devices for telling the time, which (generally) happened also to have circular faces. And thence to our chunky, clunky 20th-century telephones – I can still hear that reassuring zip and purr of the rotary dial, “dialled” by an impatient finger or the end of a pencil.

Those phones are now museum pieces or vintage home furnishings, but they have left some traces in our modern vocabulary – you can be “dialled in” to new concepts. Samsung, for instance, has obviously dialled in to the idea that the smartwatch business might have something to learn from the traditional watch industry.

The Korean tech giant continues to eat into Apple’s share of the smartwatch market by offering something that still looks a lot more like a watch than a wrist-mounted computer. The Samsung Gear S3, although definitely “oversized” in traditional terms, is easy to describe using the usual watch terminology, with its unapologetically round dial and its rotating bezel, which is used to access the smart functions. The company literature also emphasises the product’s craftsmanship, finish and detailing, rather than just its smart technology. The Apple Watch, meanwhile, has a rectangular touch sensitive face. Otherwise known as a screen. As you would expect, this smartwatch relies on the phenomenally successfully design codes of its mothership, Apple, rather than any implied reference to mechanical horology.

So, when does a dial become a screen, and a screen, a dial? Is it just about the shape, or is there more to it? Perhaps screens need to have things projected onto them, as they have since the earliest days of the cinema. A dial, on the other hand, conveys a sense of being the visible surface of a hidden machine, its gears meshing and cogs whirring mysteriously out of sight. Screens are associated with information overload and tech addiction. Dials are analogue, retro; they hark back to a slower, gentler time.

Which one will win? Well, it’s still far from clear that there’s even a battle to be fought. But rumour has it that the next Apple Watch will ship with a “circular screen”. Let’s see where that leads…