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AT&T Sees Cellular-Connected Wearables Leading the Way

Ones that don't depend on a nearby cellphone will be the bigger hit with consumers.

Asa Mathat

AT&T says the key to the wearables market taking off is having products that are simple to use and don’t rely on a cellphone for Internet connectivity.

“I think you will see devices like that this year,” AT&T’s Glenn Lurie said Tuesday, speaking at the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco.

The fitness space is a logical place to start, Lurie said, with perhaps a device that could automatically post workouts to social networks and provide music.

“It’s going to happen in health care,” said Lurie, who heads AT&T’s emerging-business efforts. “It’s going to happen in wellness and it’s going to be terrific.”

One of the biggest areas of growth, Lurie said, will be in products designed to help an aging population live in their homes longer by helping connect people to caregivers and loved ones.

“Ten thousand people a day retiring and there is no way the ecosystem can take care of it,” Lurie said in an interview.

So who is making these cellular-equipped wearables?

“I can’t tell you that,” Lurie said during his talk at MobileBeat.

One company tipped its hand shortly after Lurie spoke, though. LG late Tuesday announced KizOn, a wearable designed to help parents keep tabs on, and communicate with, young kids. The device goes on sale in Korea this month and is due to come to North America later in the third quarter.

AT&T is already selling devices that tether to a smartphone, including LG’s Android Wear-powered G Watch, but Lurie says that’s not where he sees the greatest opportunity.

“A wearable has to be an independent device first and foremost,” he said.

Of course, AT&T is in the business of selling mobile Internet service, so it is not surprising to hear the carrier touting devices with built-in connectivity. And despite the benefits, such connections also add cost and bulkiness and take a toll on battery life.

Another hurdle is making it easier to transfer incoming calls between devices. AT&T hasn’t yet announced the ability to easily shift calls from one device to another, but Lurie told Re/code the company is working on the issue.

“That concept is one we have to solve,” Lurie said in an interview on Tuesday. “I can guarantee you we are working on it.”

In addition to wearables, that technology would be useful in the car, with an increasing number of new cars coming with AT&T service built in.

Most wearables so far — Google Glass as well as nearly all smartwatches and fitness bands — have packed Bluetooth to connect to a phone, but lacked a direct cellular connection.

In addition to needing to be more self-sufficient, Lurie said the next generation of wearables needs to be easier to use.

“Somebody show me a device today that is simple to use,” Lurie said. “The reason we haven’t seen millions or hundreds of millions sold is we haven’t gotten there.”

But when someone gets it right, Lurie said, the opportunity is big.

“Just like tablets, it is going to all of a sudden explode,” Lurie said.

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