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Keeping time to the same 'beat'; Watchmaker: To address the timekeeping problems of a global online community, Swatch has created a system that does away with time zones, and devotees believe it could become the standard.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Got a sec?

Michelangelo Capraro doesn't-- not anymore. These days the 24-year-old Web designer from Santa Monica, Calif., is living on Internet time.

On a typical workday he rises at 700 beats. By 750 beats, he's in the office checking e-mail. At 900 beats, he faxes a lunch order to the Italian deli around the corner, which, he says, takes about half an hour to prepare. "Oops, I mean 20 beats," he corrects himself. At 170 beats, he logs off his PC and heads home.

The "beats" that govern Capraro's life are the brainchild of Swatch, the cheeky Swiss watchmaker that is to the staid business of horology what Dennis Rodman is to basketball. No longer satisfied with keeping time, Swatch wants to reinvent it. The reason: In the Internet Age, conventional clocks don't cut it.

Say you're cruising the Net in Baltimore and want to chat online with Web buddies, or clients, who live in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Seattle and Johannesburg. How do you decide what time to convene? If you suggest 10 p.m., is that 10 p.m. Eastern time? Or 10 p.m. Buenos Aires time? If so, what time is that in your time and everybody's else's?

Swatch's solution: Do away with time zones altogether, and create one uniform time around the globe. "For centuries one big measuring stick has been the sun," says Yann Gamard, president of Swatch Group USA. "We've created another measuring stick."

The company divided the day into 1,000 "beats," each equal to 86.4 seconds. It also moved the prime meridian from Greenwich, England, to Swatch headquarters in Biel, Switzerland. Thus, the global Internet day starts at midnight "Biel Mean Time," or simply "@ 000" in catchy Internet time notation.

The ultimate marketing gimmick? You bet! says Gamard.

Just so happens the company has created a new line of funky $70 watches called Swatch Beat. Aimed squarely at the DotCom generation, the six garishly colored digital timepieces have cyber-savvy names such as "Download," "Netsurfer," "Webmaster" and "Provider." They tick off time in both old-fashioned hours and Swatch beats. And for those who wallow in millennium angst, they even automatically count down the days until Y2K.

Despite its blatant commercialism, Internet time is catching on. Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famed Media Lab and author of the influential book "Being Digital," has lent his support to the Internet time movement.

"Cyberspace has no seasons and no night and day," he proclaimed last fall at Swatch's unveiling. "In the future, for many people, real time will be Internet time."

CNN, the 24-hour news network, now displays both standard and Internet time on its highly trafficked Web site (www.cnn. com). Dozens of other sites have followed its lead.

To encourage them, Swatch is offering free Internet time clock software for PCs on its own Web site (www.swatch.com). By the end of February, when Swatch last counted, almost 130,000 people had downloaded it. Other software publishers have created Internet time clock software for Macintosh computers, Palm Pilots and other digital devices.

Martina Overby, a 29-year-old network administrator at Pioneer Electronics Service Inc. in Palm Beach, Calif., installed the Internet time clock on more than 30 computers around her building. "Everybody loves it," she says. The company handles repairs for its Japanese parent, consumer electronics giant Pioneer, and so employees are often in touch with colleagues and clients in Asia. Internet time makes it easier to schedule meetings, Overby says.

Ryan Thiessen, a third-year student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, created a Web site devoted to Internet time (http: //ryan.thiessen.com/ swatch). "It takes a while to get used to," says Thiessen, but "once you have the Swatch watch and use it, it starts to make sense."

Some historians say the new clock isn't as cuckoo as it may seem. In fact, as times change, so does time.

"As communities get more interconnected, they tend to adopt more standardized forms of time," says Michael O'Malley, associate professor of American history at George Mason University. "And that's entirely a function of technology."

In his book, "Keeping Pace: A History of American Time," O'Malley points out that for centuries the only time that mattered was "local time," which varied significantly from place to place. When it was noon in New York, it might be 11: 52 a.m. in Philadelphia and 12: 34 p.m. in Boston.

The growth of technologies such as the steam engine and the telegraph changed that. Suddenly, it was possible to send a message across the country in a matter of seconds, and travel hundreds of miles in a day. As these 19th-century innovations brought the world closer, the shortcomings of local time grew more apparent.

As the transcontinental railroad was nearing completion in 1869, organizers planned to commemorate the event by driving a golden spike through the line in Promontory, Utah. Railroad officials, wanting it to be a nationwide media event, hired a telegrapher to tap his key when the spike entered the ground.

It was a flop. The telegraph clicked in Promontory at 12: 45 p.m. But Virginia City marked it at 12: 30. San Francisco heard it at "precisely" 11: 46 or 11: 44, depending on which paper one consulted. Washington, D.C., recorded it for history as 2: 47.

Pressure from railroad companies and the scientific community led in 1883 to the adoption of four standard time zones in the U.S. The next year, the International Meridian Conference formally sliced the globe into 24 time zones, making Greenwich, England, the site of the prime meridian.

For Internet time to become official, Swatch would need the blessing of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. The international body of standards makers based outside Paris is responsible for all matters of weights and measures.

But Swatch officials say they have no intention of doing so. "We don't lobby people, it wouldn't be our style," says Swatch's Gamard. "If the public likes it, they take it."

Critics say it's unlikely standards makers would consider a proposal that history has already snubbed anyway.

In 1792 French revolutionaries tried something called metric time. Days were divided into 10 hours. Each hour had 100 minutes and each minute 100 seconds. Do the math and it turns out the Swatch beat is nothing but the old metric minute: 86.4 seconds.

New watches and clocks were made, some of which survive today. But le peuple panned the idea. By 1806, Napoleon decided enough was enough and reverted to traditional timekeeping.

Critics of Internet time also point out that a perfectly good solution to the time-zone dilemma already exists. Ham-radio operators and the military have for years used Greenwich Mean Time-- or what the military calls "zulu" time -- to solve the problem of coordinating activities in different time zones. So an Army radio operator stationed in Japan listening to Russian radio transmissions might mark his reports to the Pentagon not in Japan time, Russian time or Eastern time, but in whatever the time was at the Greenwich meridian.

Devotees of Internet time are undeterred.

"Right now people still look at you a little bit funny when you use it," says Thiessen. "In five to 10 years, this is going to be common sense."

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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