Swatch Internet Time: A way to fix collaboration between time zones

With the rise of smartwatches and cloud collaboration platforms, James Sanders say it's time to revisit an idea that Swatch proposed in 1998 about how people interact online.

Swatch Internet Time
Image: Microsoft

With the introduction of newer technologies for communication, such as Skype, and cloud-connected collaboration solutions, it is easier than ever to communicate and work with people across the country or around the world. Yet, coordinating people in a group has not improved appreciably with the advance of these new technologies. The reason for this is the relatively peculiar way time is perceived and measured.

Although the US remains practically the only holdout from the Metric system, units of measurement for nearly everything except time have been standardized. The reluctance is understandable — time is, after all, relative. If you've looked at a map of time zones relative to solar time, the arrangement of time zones is needlessly complicated — especially for areas that measure time in fractions of an hour relative to UTC, such as Newfoundland and Labrador using an offset of UTC-03:30, or the Chatham Islands using the offset UTC+12:45.

Daylight saving time (DST) also complicates time immensely. The original argument for it — reducing electricity use of incandescent light bulbs — was specious to begin with, and far more efficient lighting solutions have existed for years. The application of DST is also aggravatingly uneven. DST is observed in the US, except in most parts of Arizona (Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona does observe DST). Alaska is attempting to do away with DST. In Canada, Saskatchewan effectively observes DST all year. The planning of DST in Australia is a mess, with multiple referendums for various regions over the last 30 years trying to organize DST observation.

The solution to this hodgepodge can be found in a product that existed briefly during the dot-com bubble. In 1998, the Swiss watchmaker Swatch proposed a new means of telling time: Swatch Internet Time.

As opposed to the somewhat peculiar method of dividing the day into 24 hours, which are divided into 60 minutes, Swatch Internet Time divides the day into 1000 beats, which are 86.4 seconds long. The time is prefixed with the @ symbol. As an example, @000 is 01:00 UTC. This is called Biel Mean Time (BMT), and serves as the starting point of Swatch Internet Time, as the headquarters of Swatch SA are in Biel, Switzerland. Because Internet Time does not observe time zones or DST, it is the same around the world, making it much easier to schedule a conference.

When it was introduced, Swatch sold watches that displayed the time normally, and in Internet Time. During the conference announcing the introduction of Swatch Internet Time, Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab (now known for the One Laptop per Child initiative) announced that it was adopted by Nation.1, an online civics project that was to be organized and governed by children around the world. Other projects adopted the standard as well: the ICQ messaging system began using it in 2003, and it was used for the game Phantasy Star Online for players across North America, Europe, and Japan to experience game-time events at the same time.

Implementing this idea in software should be relatively easy, in practice. The PHP date() function has support for Swatch Internet Time, and some Linux desktop environments use identical syntax to add that as a custom clock format. Calculating it in JavaScript is relatively straightforward. The rise in popularity of customizable devices such as the Apple Watch, Moto 360, and smartwatches from other vendors would theoretically allow users to add a view of Internet Time on a custom watch face.

The difficult part is (as with anything else) selling users on the idea. Changing user behavior by introducing something novel without an immediate need for it is most often met with extreme resistance and complaints. It might not be for everyone — some people do not frequently communicate with people outside their time zone. But, unlike other novel ways of telling time, like this Unix Epoch clock on my desk, it is not restricted to a particularly niche application. The world is growing more connected, and some means of global coordination will eventually be needed.

Can you spare a beat?

Do you encounter difficulties coordinating plans with people between continents? Do you find DST to be baffling or aggravating? Is there some other abandoned dot-com bubble era technology that you think should be revived? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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