t’s been a long wait. Every year, rumours about the production of the first connected watch by Tissot, the Swiss industrial giant of accessible timepieces (and therefore the brand with the greatest legitimacy, along with Swatch, in terms of designing this type of model) grew more insistent. The pressure was all the stronger as, over the last five years, the connected segment has really created a new horological market. The smartwatch, which left many observers skeptical when it first emerged, has become part of everyday life.
The exercise is nevertheless risky for a brand as old as Tissot, which was founded in 1853. Can it combine the traditional longevity of its products with the more ephemeral lifespan of a connected device that needs to be constantly updated? Sylvain Dolla – the man who could be nicknamed “Mr Connection” within the Swatch Group – was the natural choice for solving this complex equation.
A former manager at Alcatel, Dolla had already overseen the release of the Paparazzi model, an ancestor of connected watches launched by Swatch and Microsoft in... 2004! A similar collaboration between Tissot and Microsoft also gave birth to the High-T model.
- In the 1990s and early 2000s, Swatch Group launched several connected projects, the ancestors of the current models. This article published in a 1997 issue of Europa Star issue describes some of them. The new CEO of Tissot, Sylvain Dolla, supervised the launch of one of these pioneering models, the Swatch Paparazzi, in 2004.
- ©Europa Star 6/1997
After nine years at the head of Hamilton, Sylvain Dolla took over the operational reins of Tissot last July. One of his first tasks was to ensure the success of this strategic launch. Everything about the conception and creation of the T-Touch Connect Solar was done in the Swatch Group’s industrial tradition, in contrast to what we generally see in the world of consumer electronics.
“We took our time”
The project was initiated four years ago. In the meantime, the market for the connected watch has taken off. Did Tissot wait too long?
“Quite the contrary: the strength of the project relied precisely on the fact that we didn’t have a fixed deadline,” replies Dolla. “During this period, many connected watch projects ended in fiasco. We’re not sheep! We didn’t want to run after the others: the biggest mistake would have been to rush into consumer electronics with a sense of urgency. That would inevitably have damaged our brand.”
- Sylvain Dolla took over as CEO of Tissot on July 1, after nine years running Hamilton, another Swatch Group brand. The T-Touch Connect Solar is his first major project at the Le Locle-based giant.
“The biggest mistake would have been to rush into consumer electronics with a sense of urgency. That would have inevitably damaged our brand.”
It was thus with a carte blanche from the brand’s management and Swatch Group, and without any firm deadline, that Sylvain Dolla was able to put together a team to carry out the project discreetly and in close collaboration with Nicolas Clerc, head of product development at Tissot.
The two managers mobilised the resources of Swatch Group’s subsidiaries, including EM Microelectronic, a semiconductor manufacturer specialising in the design and production of ultra-low power and low voltage integrated circuits, and ETA for electronic movements. The company also joined forces with the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM), the Swiss watch industry’s leading research centre.
In the footsteps of the T-Touch
Another key to understanding Tissot’s approach is that its connected watch is not intended to be a disruptive product, but rather a continuation of the first multifunctional tactile timepiece in history, launched in 1999. One way to look at the Connect Solar is to consider it an “augmented T-Touch”. The model does not abandon the traditional hands; it combines them with a small digital display at 6 o’clock.
- A hybrid (analogue and digital) display timepiece from Tissot in a 1999 edition of Europa Star (bottom left). The brand’s new connected model is a continuation of its hybrid, multifunctional T-Touch line.
“Since the creation of the T-Touch, digital display has been an integral part of our brand. But we want to continue to develop watches rather than instruments. If you do away with the hands, you fall into the world of consumer electronics,” says Sylvain Dolla.
The basic mandate was thus to “produce a timepiece that can be used for at least a decade, just like any other Tissot model”, while shaping a self-sustaining software ecosystem. These two obsessions – autonomy (via solar energy) and independence (via a Swiss digital platform) – were the common threads of the project.
- With a diameter of 47 mm and a depth rating of 100 metres, the T-Touch Connect Solar is available in satin-finished titanium, black PVD or rose gold PVD. It is equipped with a ceramic bezel.
“If you remove the hands, you switch to a completely different world. We wish to remain in the watchmaking world.”
A proprietary operating system
One of the great unknowns was the ability of Swatch Group to produce a credible operating system in Switzerland, far from the tech giants of Silicon Valley or the Far East. To achieve this, the group worked closely with the Neuchâtel-based CSEM. “Not for a minute did we think of outsourcing the operating system outside Switzerland. And every line of code was written with a particular concern for minimum energy consumption,” says Dolla.
The resulting proprietary low-power operating system, called “Sw-ALPS” (necessary for obtaining the Swiss made label), can interact with smartphones running on iOS (Apple), Android (Google) and Harmony OS (Huawei) via a Bluetooth Low Energy chip connected to a dedicated application. “We offer the first connected watch compatible with Huawei’s latest operating system, which makes it truly universal,” the manager explains.
“For the operating system, every line of code was written with a particular concern for minimum energy consumption.”
The T-Touch Connect Solar shares the same basic functions as a T-Touch Solar Expert, including a perpetual calendar, countdown, various timekeeping functions and alarms, plus weather and altimeter functions. The connection provides two main categories of additional functions: the watch displays notifications (calls, SMS, e-mails) and also carries an activity tracker (recording number of steps, distance travelled and energy expended), coupled with an accelerometer.
“Swiss quality also means data security”
While most of the connected watches available on the market have the ability to monitor health-related data (such as heart rate), Swatch Group decided not to go down this path. Sylvain Dolla explains this choice: “Connection, yes, medical accessory, no! Collecting sensitive and private health data is not the raison d’être of our brand. The guarantee of a Swiss label also means security and privacy.”
This is a particularly sensitive point, as Garmin, a giant of the wearable industry, recently suffered a ransomware cyber-attack. “No supplier can get hold of the data,” emphasises Dolla. “All information remains strictly personal and is safely stored in the mobile application of the T-Touch Connect Solar. We have complete control over this environment.”
- An application dedicated to the NBA, of which Tissot is the watch sponsor, is planned for next year.
The T-Touch Connect Solar’s user interface consists of two push-buttons, an electronic crown and a tactile interface made from scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. A long press on the “start” button at 2 o’clock activates the tactile crystal. A long press on the “back” button at 4 o’clock takes the T-Touch Connect Solar to its home screen. Activation is confirmed when the hands point to precisely 12 o’clock. Six dial zones are activated, each containing a group of functions.
Tissot’s intention is to add “at least one additional function per year”. The watchmaker is announcing an upcoming NBA application (a competition sponsored by Tissot) next year.
Power consumption: the enemy of connectivity
The creation of a Swiss operating system was not, however, the most difficult part of the project, according to Sylvain Dolla: “Designing the solar cells was much more complex.” Tissot used the resources of Swatch Group, via EM Microelectronic and ETA, to design a quartz movement that runs on solar energy. “It’s not just the connectivity, everything is new in this watch.”
For Tissot, energy efficiency, which is the weak point of most connected watches with short autonomy, is the element that should make its own model stand out from the competition. Latest-generation photovoltaic cells have been designed and aesthetically developed to act as the actual watch dial.
Energy efficiency, which is the weak point of most connected watches with short autonomy, is the element that should allow Tissot’s model to stand out from the competition.
The screen of the T-Touch Connect Solar plays a vital role both in its interactivity and its energy efficiency. The reading surface has been made as large as possible, given the need to balance energy consumption, space allocated to photovoltaic sensors, and legibility. This MIP (Memory in Pixel) type screen, similar to a passive display, is refreshed only when necessary, thus conserving battery power. It is also easy to read in direct sunlight. In addition, the T-Touch Connect Solar has adaptive luminosity, which immediately triggers backlit mode when the ambient light dims.
Autonomy is “almost infinite” in disconnected watch mode. In interactive mode, and after turning on Bluetooth, Tissot claims an autonomy of six months, “depending on multiple factors, such as frequency of visual or vibration notifications, backlighting, adaptation to ambient lighting level, and the amount of data transferred.”
- The T-Touch Connect Solar uses its photovoltaic cells as a dial. Thanks to solar energy, Tissot claims a minimum autonomy of six months when using the connected functions.
More than 30 million in R&D
The development of the T-Touch Connect Solar represented a total investment of more than 30 million francs for Swatch Group. Its industrial applications go well beyond this model alone. “It’s 360° R&D: we have developed new motors for the hands, as well as solar cells that can be used on non-connected timepieces,” Sylvain Dolla points out.
Eventually, the entire T-Touch collection will be equipped with connected modules, since they do not prevent a “classic” use of the watch. The current series will be gradually withdrawn from sale.
In order to stand out from the global offer of connected watches, the CEO also insists on the choice of materials: the 47 mm case (not for small wrists!) is in satin-finished titanium and the bezel is scratch-resistant ceramic, combined with either a rubber strap or a titanium bracelet. The tactile glass is made of sapphire.
At CHF 995, the starting price of the model is exactly the same as that of the non-connected T-Touch Expert Solar. “We were very keen to stay in our core range, below the CHF 1,000 mark,” states Dolla.
Eventually, the entire T-Touch collection will be equipped with connected modules.
Distribution begins this autumn in Switzerland, which acts as a test market for this much-anticipated line, before expanding to selected European countries by the end of the year. China and the United States will follow. For Tissot, this also provides time to train teams and representatives on this new type of product.
Sylvain Dolla appreciates the freedom he has been given to develop this project: “When I worked in consumer electronics, we had a deadline to meet at all costs, whatever the progress of technology. With this project, we are not reacting to the competition, but rather producing a truly horological innovation, thanks to an agile working method and collective intelligence.”
It is an understatement to say that, in terms of its development, this project displays quintessentially Swiss characteristics. For Tissot, a new chapter is opening in an already unprecedented year. But this is not exactly a leap into the unknown. It’s a very smooth integration into the connected world.
Not quite a leap into the unknown, but rather a smooth integration into the connected world.
TISSOT T-TOUCH CONNECT SOLAR
Swiss Made • Low consumption SwALPS operating system • Titanium case, black PVD coating and rose gold • 47 mm diameter; 15.3 mm thick • Engraved pushers • Electronic crown • Ceramic bezel • Luminescent wind rose markings • Scratch-resistant tactile sapphire crystal • Waterproof 100 m (10 ATM) • Quartz movement, solar recharging • Dial with photovoltaic cells • Low consumption digital MIP screen (Memory In Pixel)