Smartwatches arrive before their time

Intel's approach cuts smartwatch dependency on smartphones

LAS VEGAS -- Smartwatches and other wearable computing devices are getting plenty of buzz at International CES this year, but it remains to be seen if, and when, the gadgets will achieve broader consumer interest.

Pebble steel smartwatches
The Pebble Steel smartwatch will sell for $249. (Photo: Pebble)

Some economists believe the wearables category, which includes health and fitness products that connect with a smart wrist band, is set to explode. Meanwhile, companies such as AT&T believe that smartwatches -- as a subset of all wearables --are promising products that are yet to be proven.

"Smartwatches are interesting," said David Christopher, AT&T's chief marketing officer, in an interview. "The market is early, and we're going to watch and see. It's early for these things, but there's lot of potential."

What seems to be missing from smartwatches is a "killer app," said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association. in an interview. In a presentation to reporters, DuBravac said that 75 to 100 wearable devices would be shown at CES, which is run by the CEA, and predicted that "wearables will explode" in the coming year.

Smartwatches so far are challenged by a limited number of apps, a general lack of style and high prices. Some devices are selling for $200 to $300 -- more than the cost of a tablet computer. Women have complained that the current array of smartwatches are too large and seem designed primarily for men.

A startup called Pebble, launched the Pebble smartwatch after a successful Kickstarter investor campaign last year, selling the device for $150. On Monday, Pebble announced a second-generation device called Pebble Steel that sells for $249 and raises the fashion sense of the earlier version, offering designs in brushed stainless steel and a black matte version. Pebble also said it will have an apps store to purchase smartwatch apps.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in an opening night keynote introduced a few wearable device concepts, including a smartwatch that doesn't need to be paired with a smartphone. The device includes geo fencing technology that can send alerts when the wearer goes outside the geo fence. He also announced Edison, a full Pentium-class PC that's the size of an SD card and runs the Linux OS, and includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and and an app store.

Focused on the fitness and health monitoring category, Sony on Monday announced the Sony Core, while LG announced the Lifeband Touch.

"It's interesting that we are starting to see two trends -- one about watches that offer notifications and convenience like the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm Toq, but then others like Sony Core that are about collecting data from you and what you do," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said Intel's smartwatch is interesting because it can be autonomous, but it will be a challenge to market because consumers will probably need to buy a second phone number and data service plan for the watch in addition to a smartphone.

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