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USAToday Column


March 5, 2015
MWC 2015: It was all about connected wearables

By Bob O'Donnell

BARCELONA -- Along with the gastronomic and architectural treasures sprinkled here, attendees of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) show this week also experienced a wealth of new wearable devices.

Everywhere you turned, it seemed, there were new smartwatches, fitness trackers, and virtual-reality focused head-mounted displays. In addition, there were quite a few companies showing off the critical elements necessary to create these devices — from processors, sensors and radios to the software and applications designed to run on them.

Appropriately, in the beautiful and design-conscious environs of Barcelona, home of famed architect and designer Antonio Gaudi, there were a number of companies showing more attractive versions of these devices than we've seen in the past. From Huawei to LG and Sony, there was clearly more of a design and jewelry-focused take on many of the new wearables, particularly smartwatches.

In addition, one of the growing trends at this year's show was connected wearables — that is, devices which can actually connect to a cellular network without the need for a companion smartphone. Connected wearables aren't entirely new, but there was a stronger focus on them than at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Given MWC's historical focus on the telecom industry, that makes perfect sense.

Another reason for the increased focus is improvements in radio technology that make products like this more viable.

A key challenge in the past was the large battery draw necessary to power a cellular radio — a particularly significant issue on devices like wearables that have small batteries because of the physical size of the device. As it is, even many non-connected wearables are a bit too thick and heavy for some people to comfortably wear on their wrists, so adding a cellular radio seems nearly impossible because of both the battery drain and weight impact that it would have on the device.

The forthcoming Apple Watch, expected to make its more formal debut Monday, for example, does not include cellular connectivity for that reason.

LG surprised many, however, by debuting an impressive Qualcomm processor-based smartwatch called the Urbane LTE that includes a 4G LTE radio. This cellular modem gives the device the ability to make and receive voice calls as well as receive data without the need for a connected smartphone. The Urbane LTE features a 1.3-inch, high-resolution OLED display, runs a version of WebOS (which LG purchased from Hewlett Packard a few years back) and, according to the company, has at least a day of active usage battery life and up to several days in standby mode. LG also showed an Android Wear-based smartwatch called Urbane, but Google doesn't support 4G connectivity in Android Wear-based smartwatches yet, so that version uses Bluetooth LE for connectivity to a smartphone.

Until the product is released later this spring and people have had a chance to try the battery life, questions will remain, but several lengthy conversations I've had with Qualcomm and others suggest those numbers are achievable. Part of the reason is that there are versions of LTE that run in low-power modes and those can be used by smartwatch makers. Plus, later this year, there should be even better power saving options thanks to the introduction of Category 0 and Category 1 LTE radios, which have even lower power requirements.

One of the challenges for connected wearables, however, is that until carriers widely support a feature called "twinning," devices like connected wearables will not only have their own SIM, but their own phone number as well.

In other words, you'd have to know someone's smartwatch number to call or text them on that device — not exactly convenient. Later this year, AT&T will be offering network-based twinning capabilities, which essentially "twins" your main phone number onto another device with a separate SIM card, but until then, you have to be in Bluetooth range of another connected phone to avoid this problem (and other carriers are further behind).

Another very intriguing new wearable type device introduced at the show was the Monohm Runcible. Though still very early in its development, this beautifully designed circular device based on the Mozilla OS is more like a smart pocketwatch that can also function as a smartphone. Leveraging the capabilities of HTML5, the company claims no apps are necessary because everything can be delivered via a browser. More importantly, it's the first device I've seen that breaks the now boring glass slab design that makes virtually every modern smartphone look the same.

While there's no doubt the tiny start-up behind it faces some serious challenges before the product is expected to debut this fall, the almost Gaudi-like design of the Runcible offers the most interesting potential path forward I've seen for both smartphones and wearables.

Seems rather appropriate that it made its debut in Barcelona.

Bob O'Donnell is founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a technology consulting and market research firm.

Here's a link to the original column: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2015/03/05/mobile-world-congress/24440309/

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