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Will cell phones replace watches? Time will tell

Where you look to find the time may depend on your age.

Published December 19, 2005

[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Matt Burton, 17, and Price McKeon, 17, both juniors at Plant High School in Tampa, keep time on their cell phones instead of watches.

Kevin Colindres, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Tampa, has five watches at home, including a nice Tommy Hilfiger model.

"But I don't wear them," he says, "because I've got a cell phone."

A quick glance at the tiny clock on his Verizon camera phone is all it takes. The same goes for Price McKeon, a 17-year-old junior at Tampa's Plant High School.

"I don't have any friends who wear watches," she said. On the other hand, "I only have one friend that doesn't have a cell phone."

For more than a century, watches have been an indispensable part of American life; they have helped the masses report to work on time, they have become icons of status and style. But many young people consider them as obsolete as sundials. For them, cell phones are the new watches.

Wristwatch sales for all companies have been flat nationwide since 2001, said Jim Katz, spokesman for Timex, which reportedly sells 30-million watches a year.

While Katz said there is "no indication" that cell phones are responsible for flat sales, he acknowledged the industry is closely monitoring the cell phone-watch phenomenon.

But ask 15-year-old Jaynee Rodgers why she doesn't wear a watch, and the reason is clear: "I don't see the need for one, because I've always got my cell."

She was sitting at a table last week outside a downtown St. Petersburg Starbucks with two friends who also carry cell phones and don't wear watches.

What would it take to get them to wear a watch?

"If they ran out of cell phones," said Steven Taaffe, 17, a senior at St. Petersburg High School.

"Maybe if it was, like, for my father," said Kayla Miller, 15, a St. Petersburg High sophomore.

"Or maybe," said Jaynee, a Gibbs High sophomore, "if it was like a nice dressy watch" for special occasions.

In some cases, there is a generational divide. Price, the Plant High junior, said most of her friends don't wear wristwatches, but both parents do.

"Old dog, old tricks," her father, Tom McKeon, said with a smile. McKeon is 56, works in investments, and carries both a cell phone and a watch.

Price's mother, Martha McKeon, said she was surprised when she first noticed her daughter repeatedly checking her cell, as though she was nervously expecting a call. She wasn't; just checking the time.

The McKeons' other daughter is away at college and uses her cell phone as an alarm clock too, but that plan recently backfired when the phone conked.

* * *

Half a century ago, the comic-strip detective Dick Tracy barked commands into what must have seemed like an impossibly futuristic device: a two-way radio wristwatch. That imaginary device has almost come true in the 21st century.

About 200-million cell phones are used in the United States, and most have built-in clocks. But they are not on people's wrists. So, are wristwatches history?

No way, Timex's Katz says.

Many cell phones have features most wristwatches lack: Internet access, text messaging, cameras, not to mention myriad ring tones and games.

Plus, cell phones automatically adjust their clocks when time zones and daylight saving times change (some wristwatches do that too, but most don't).

Katz counters that technological innovations are exploding in the watch world too, and many of them work better on your wrist.

Among them: heart monitor watches for serious runners, the altimeter watch that's great for your mountain hikes, watches with digital compasses and more.

Sure, cell phones might have a stopwatch function, but what triathletes want to check their speed by whipping a wet phone out of their shorts?

Watches, at least low-end watches, are less expensive than ever. At a St. Petersburg Wal-Mart last week, a watch called an Ltd. was selling for $4.74. Burger King has recently been selling Star Wars watches for $2.

* * *

The world of watches hasn't always changed so rapidly. Pocket watches flourished for two centuries before models small enough to fit around wrists came into wide use in the 1880s. These were designed for women. But during World War I, they became popular for men, too.

Over time, watches came to serve as milestones in people's lives, said Jim Lubic, 46, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Ohio.

"In our parents' generation, it was more of an anniversary gift or a graduation gift or whatever. It was more of a special type occasion," Lubic said. Watches "were considered family heirlooms and passed down."

Lubic's mother gave him a watch when he was 14 so he wouldn't come home late for dinner. He admits that a parent now might just call the kid on a cell phone to say it's time for dinner. But to him, watches remain important.

"To me it's like putting my underwear on every day almost. If I didn't have a watch, I'd just feel totally lost."

Lubic generally wears a wristwatch known as a Zenith El Primero, which he said is worth $5,000 to $6,000.

"I have a watch on my left arm and a cell on my right hip, but I look at my left arm to see what time it is," he said.

It's easier that way. Checking the cell phone often means fishing it out of a pocket or off a belt. That can at least look awkward in some places like a classroom, where cell phones are generally supposed to be switched off anyway.

But ease of access doesn't win everyone over to watches.

Students say they have clocks in virtually every classroom and also in cars and home computers, which means it's actually fairly easy to get by without a watch or a cell phone clock.

Even if watches are not essential for youths, many agree they can be fashionable. That's why Kirk Zachry, 16, of Tampa wears a gold and silver Seiko even though he also carries a cell phone.

At least he normally wears the Seiko, but last week he was missing it because he had loaned it to a friend who was still insisting it was "not all the way lost." For him, the Seiko is about more than time: "You just look better with a watch, a little more sophisticated."

--Information from the World Book was used in this report.

[Last modified December 19, 2005, 01:39:06]

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