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Summary:

As the smartwatch market gains momentum, it’s not yet clear if consumers want second screens for their phones or standalone devices. Perhaps that’s why Microsoft is reportedly planning to include an LTE radio in its next wearable.

SPOT watches

Microsoft’s expected smartwatch may not rely on a phone for its data connection, meaning you may have to pay for a service plan. The company hasn’t announced any formal smartwatch devices, but with wearable devices becoming the next technology frontier, Microsoft is all but certain to be working on such a product. So too are most others in the tech industry, including Apple, Dell and various entrepreneurs: Thank the Pebble team and its $10.2 million Kickstarter project for that. Nearly all of the smartwatches today, however, use the data connection from a paired phone.

pebble-2In April, the Wall Street Journal reported on Microsoft’s requests for components to build a smartwatch. At the time, the company was seeking hardware for product and design testing for a device with a 1.5-inch touchscreen. Later that month, The Verge noted Microsoft was testing its power connector for Surface tablets with the watch product. This past weekend, enthusiast blog AmongTech says its sources confirmed the device will have its own LTE radio.

If true, that’s both interesting and unique because the smartwatch market is still developing. And it’s not yet clear if the bigger market will be for wearables that act as a second screen for smartphones or be true standalone devices, which is the potential approach for Microsoft’s smartwatch. My gut says we’ll see a hybrid of the two for a few reasons.

For starters, selling consumers on another connected device that requires a carrier subscription plan will be a tough sell. It’s likely such a device could be added to a data sharing plan for $10 a month — you can do that today with cameras with integrated mobile broadband — but that’s not ideal for many people. Second, I’ve long used a hybrid device that doesn’t require its own data plan and still works well without being connected to a handset.

motoactv-watchMotorola’s MotoACTV should be the poster child for a hybrid smartwatch. It has every needed radio except for a mobile broadband option: FM, GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

When I want a second screen for smartphone notifications on my wrist, I simply pair it with my handset. If I want to run, golf or track exercise without carrying a phone, built-in apps and sensors can manage that. When I get back home, the watch automatically shoots the health-tracking data to the cloud via Wi-Fi without any interaction on my part.

Hopefully, Microsoft keeps this in mind, and if it does offer an LTE version of a smartwatch, it follows with a Wi-Fi-only option as well. We don’t need more devices with monthly fees or worse: two-year contracts. And small watches mean small batteries: One more power hungry radio on the wrist could present a battery challenge.

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  1. I agree that having a LTE included will mean additional monthly cost and they tried that with the SPOT watch before. Even if you get the watch for a very low price having a required monthly fee would seem to be a big mistake unless it was a complete phone and stand alone watch phones haven’t done so well in the marketplace.

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