Time’s up for time zones: a Syrian entrepreneur and his global clock system

The future is here and it’s about time – literally. When Hussam Hebbo (31), a software engineer from Syria gone entrepreneur, once again got stuck scheduling appointments across four different time zones, he thought of a solution. hTime: an algorithmic clock that unifies time and rotates according to your location. We sat down to talk about Einstein, user-friendly clocks and even space travel …

Text: Irene Broer / Photography: Teresa Enhiak Nanni

So, time! What’s the deal?

Time is a fact of life. Time is relative. It comes from the universe. It’s there and we cannot change it, right now at least. A clock, however, is a man-made invention to measure time and, like all man-made solutions, can be improved.

What’s the problem with clocks, then?

Clocks are fine, it’s time zones that are the problem. When I was working on the startup Muuyu a couple of years ago, I often had to schedule video calls across four different time zones: San Francisco, New York, London and Berlin. It was such a hassle to figure out a time that would be convenient for everyone: when I sent out the emails, I always had to take into account the different time zones, people’s office hours … It took me probably around 20 minutes each time to make sure it was all correct. And of course, there was always someone who wasn’t available anymore, and I’d have to calculate it again. So, I thought, there has to be a better solution.

Aren’t there plenty of solutions for this already?

There are tools available that help you see the time somewhere else, like those little clocks you have on your phone for example, but you still need to calculate the time difference between locations, which is not intuitive at all. I tried different apps, but in the end they only solve maybe 10 percent of the problem.

What about UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) or GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)?

UTC works to some extent, but it’s very static and you still have to calculate the time-distances. Swatch had a good idea in the 1990s called Internet Time. They basically divided 24 hours up into 1000 time units that were always the same for anyone, anywhere. But that concept was so difficult for people to internalize and generally the user experience wasn’t intuitive, so it never took off. I wanted to design something that would improve the whole concept of scheduling between different time zones: a solution that fixes this whole mess.

Which mess do you mean, exactly?

Time zones! I drew a picture of it just to see how messy it is. There are no straight lines, no universal rules. For example, the entire country of China has one timezone, while the United States have six different time zones. Did you know Nepal has a 15 minute time zone?

Yikes …

Yes.

How did it get this messy way?

Time differences happen due to Earth’s rotation. Earth rotates around itself and around the Sun – that’s why daytime and nighttime are different across the world. Time zones were introduced around 1883, more or less simultaneous to the establishment of long-distance railways, so that we could avoid collisions between trains using the same tracks. These time zones defined time differences quite accurately, so that it was clear what the time was in Berlin, Prague, Istanbul, and so on. But then politics happened.

Oh no!

Gradually, countries started to adapt their time zones according to the current political climate and to aid trade. That’s why China, for example, only has one time zone (UTC+8) even though the country is really wide. All of these changes ended up in many different time zones that are very difficult to calculate with, while our clock has remained static.

So what’s your solution?

My solution is inspired by Earth’s rotation. I thought: How about you have a clock that rotates with you according to your location on Earth? One that’s not static. So that if I tell you it’s now 2:00 p.m. here …

Stop, stop, stop. I need to visualize this. A clock that rotates with you?

Let me show you …

The concept here is not to change time, but to extend time. My design integrates both local time and global time, or hTime as I call it, into one clock. We have 24 hours, 60 minutes, 60 seconds and two integrated dials. Just like the normal clock, the digits show the hours and the minutes of the location of your choice. And then there is another layer showing the global time according to 24 letters of the alphabet.  So when it is 17:55 in Hamburg local time, it is Q:55 hTime in Hamburg, in San Francisco, New York, London and everywhere else.

I see. That’s cool, like a compass.

A little bit. Our reference is always the same point, so if you are in an airplane travelling from San Francisco to Japan, the clock would rotate with you as you fly. It would show you the same hTime as anywhere else during your trip, only the local clock is changing.

Aha!

So now if you want to have a call with someone living somewhere else, you’re gonna say, let’s meet at M:00 – which is the same for everyone.

Except that it might be day here and night over there …

For that I have a solution as well, because the clock shows day and night time at all the different locations. I also have a feature called Time Intersect that suggests the best time slots to call based on office hours of two or more locations, so that could be J-M or Q-T depending on who you’re working with.

That’s very cool. But what about the date: how do know I’m talking about the same “A:22” with someone who’s in Australia, and we don’t meet one day apart?

Date is tricky and I’m looking to improve that. At the moment I base date on GMT, so X:01 – the first minute of the day – starts at 00:01 GMT.

Question, though. You’re looking to making a business out of it, but how can you commotidize time?

That’s a very good question: you cannot commoditize time, it just passes along. The business part would be more service-based, so for example cross time zone scheduling, digital planners, calendar integrations, things like that. I am in the process of patenting my algorithm and when that happens, we’ll see how it continues.

What’s your vision, do you think everyone will use hTime at some point?

Honestly I think people are comfortable using local time, knowing that the sun comes up around 6 a.m., having lunch around 12:00 p.m. I don’t think people need to switch over to hTime to improve their daily lives, except for making appointments across time zones. I do hope that airports will start using it, I would find that really cool.

That’s right, it would make things so much easier when you fly!

Exactly, it would be much easier to understand when exactly you depart and arrive, and how long you fly for. Even more so if you have a layover somewhere: if you use hTime you won’t need to adjust your clock to the local time anymore, you simply look at the hTime.

Maybe I’ve seen too much Star Trek – but I imagine you could use hTime for space travel, too! Then it would just be Earth time.

Hahaha, actually it’s not so far off: there is such a thing as Mars time, depending on Mars’ own rotations. There’s a cool Ted Talk about it by Nagin Cox, a spacecraft engineer working for NASA.

You could use hTime and Mars time to calculate time difference, just like the long-distance trains back in the day!

Let’s start with airports first, haha.

Alright, I’m going to watch some more Star Trek. Hussam, thanks so much for your … time. It was a real pleasure talking to you about clocks, time and the universe. Best of luck with hTime!