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Smart Watches Show More Style and Substance

New and improved smart watches were unveiled at Mobile World Congress—but consumers remain unconvinced.

From telling the time to telling you how many times you’ve been retweeted, watches keep taking on new functions. The ones on show at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, finally add form to their functionality—but it remains far from clear what the killer features are for these devices.

Urbane watch
The LG Urbane smart watch.

Gadget makers are struggling to attract consumers to smart watches, which have sold in modest quantities compared to smartphones and tablets. The Apple Watch, which goes on sale next month, will either give the emerging category a major boost or confirm that wrist-worn computers are a niche interest.

Unlike the first round of smart watches, the LG Urbane or the Huawei Watch, both announced at MWC this week, might pass for conventional luxury timepieces when their round screens are in watch mode. Both are handsomely designed and come in multiple colors with metal and leather straps. Unlike most smart watches, which have toughened glass, the Huawei model, which goes on sale this summer, features a sapphire crystal face.

Like most other smart watches on the market today, the Huawei device uses the Android Wear operating system. The Urbane comes in two versions: one that uses Android, and another that features WebOS—an operating system originally developed by HP for smartphones and tablets but now an open source project. Neither Huawei nor LG has announced a price for their devices.

LG execs acknowledge that the use of WebOS is an experiment. Thanks to a cellular chip and antennas, the Urbane can make phone calls and handle messaging without tethering to a separate smartphone. Dick Tracy-type phone calls are not new: they have been possible since the launch last year of Samsung’s Gear S smart watch, though that watch requires a Samsung phone for setup. But such functionality often seems superfluous on a wrist-worn device (see “So Far, Smart Watches Are Pretty Dumb”).

It was also clear on the Mobile World Congress exhibition floor today that watchmakers, fitness companies, and smartphone-makers are all exploring what they have to offer each other. The Huawei Watch was on display alongside the Talkband, a wristband with a removable hands-free Bluetooth earpiece. At a nearby stand, a wall of fitness bands revealed more colors than the rainbow.

Something will need to change for smart watches to outsell the fitness bands that currently dominate wearable sales. A Pricewaterhouse Coopers report says that 51 percent of consumers surveyed last year were interested in fitness bands but only 35 percent said they wanted smart watches. The sales data show an even more lopsided preference for brawn over brains: Consumers purchased 13.5 million health and fitness trackers last year, according to market research firm GFK, compared with four million smart watches.

Some manufacturers are betting they can increase the appeal of smart watches using mobile payment technologies. Like the Apple Watch, the Urbane LTE contains a near-field communications  antenna for making payments in stores.

Future watches may also need to compete on user interaction and design as much as on raw features. That seems to be the lesson from early entrant Pebble, which recently announced a new design and interface for its watches (see “A Smart-Watch Pioneer Has an Answer for Apple”). Late last month Pebble launched yet another crowdfunding and presale campaign, and has already raised almost 28 times its original goal.

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