Fitness bands and smartwatches: Where are they now?
SAN DIEGO – A seemingly simple quest to find a way to track jogs without lugging around an iPhone morphed into a complex realisation. For years now, wearables have been touted as the next big thing in tech, yet even the trend-defining Apple has struggled to produce a device that resonates with the masses.
This industry, with all the promise in the world to make us healthier, more informed human beings, still seems to be nothing more than a sleepy tech segment, one that certainly hasn’t lived up to its initial hype.
After all, the runaway leader in the category, Fitbit, sold a modest 4.8 million connected devices during the first three months of the year. The company’s stock has been on the struggle bus this year, and Fitbit’s market capitalisation is well shy of its value after its initial public offering last June.
“We are after square one,” Ramon Llamas said of the wearables space. Llamas is the wearables research manager at International Data Corp. “But we’re still in the initial stages.”
The firm estimates that vendors shipped nearly 20 million wearables in the first quarter of 2016. Though that’s a 67 percent increase over a year ago, it is a meager number compared with the more than 334 million smartphones vendors shipped during the same period.
The comparison is, of course, unfair. In this day and age, almost everyone requires a smartphone – if only to participate in the “Pokemon Go” craze. On the other hand, no one truly needs a smartwatch or fitness band, especially since many of us long ago ditched our more traditional wristwatches. And phones do an acceptable job of counting steps.
Still, there seems to be a gradual, growing acceptance of at least the most basic of fitness trackers. Though they have a singular purpose, to track your fitness, and they offer the same features on day 100 as they do on day one, they are approachable to regular folks.
“Fitness trackers are more popular than smartwatches,” said Llamas. “They are things that people really get. You can wrap your brain around how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned. And the price point is reasonable to most. … Whereas with a smartwatch, people sometimes don’t get it.”
Fitbits, which come in more than half a dozen varieties, are all the rage at the San Diego Union-Tribune office where my co-workers often compete to see who can rack up the most steps. Even 61-year-old science reporter Gary Robbins abandoned a strict nothing-on-the-wrist policy and purchased a Charge HR, which retails for $150 and monitors heart rate plus has caller ID. Well, technically, his wife, business editor Diana McCabe, bought it for him.
You could call McCabe the Fitbit spokesperson for the office. Despite being on her fourth device and receiving at least one completely defective gadget, she still religiously wears her Alta band, a slim unit that costs $130 and tracks steps, distance and calories burned. San Diego resident Melodie Tao, 31, has a similar affinity for her Fitbit Charge HR. She too is on her third or fourth band – she’s lost count – because they “break a lot.”
“I still keep getting them,” Tao said. “I mainly just track my steps. I feel like it keeps me motivated, and I like knowing how many steps I’ve taken.”
I nearly bought one, too. Years ago, I was gifted with the first version of the Jawbone Up, which measures steps and tracks sleep. I swore by it for three months. I took it off one day and never put it back on. In part, because I tired of its novelty. But it also became unsightly after daily use.
This time around I had a singular aim: to track my runs (while leaving my phone at home). Plus, if I was going to stick something on my otherwise naked wrist I wanted it to look good, too. It turns out, I’m not alone.
“Fashion has become critically important,” said Jackson Somes, the wearables analyst at San Diego-based Gap Intelligence, which monitors retail placements of smart wrist devices. “Fashion is one of the top deciding factors when buying a smartwatch or fitness band.”
Perhaps that explains why Apple and Fitbit have teamed with fashion brands to create designer versions, some offered at absurd prices. The Apple Watch Hermes, with its handmade leather bands, starts at $1,100, for instance.
I opted for something a bit more practical: A 38mm Apple Watch Sport with a rose gold case and a lavender band ($300 plus tax). The major selling point was that I could load purchased songs onto the device, pair it with a Bluetooth headset and run sans my bulky iPhone 6s.
Pretty and functional though the Apple Watch may be, I nearly returned it during the 14-day grace period, because, truthfully, I just can’t stand wearing a watch. But within a week I bumped into a wall, scratched the watch face and realised that I should probably just make the best of it.
That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of the Apple Watch. Nor is the latest data from IDC.
Apple shipped 55 percent fewer watches in the second quarter than it did a year ago, according to the firm. The electronics retailer was also the only smartphone vendor among the top five to experience an annual decline in shipments.
Still, with 47 percent market share, Apple is the leader in the smartwatch sector. And some people really swear by their Apple Watches.
Take Rob Marlbrough, a 45-year-old and self-described early adopter, who purchased his Apple Watch Sport soon after it was released in April 2015. He continues to wear it everyday, albeit with an upgraded Milanese Loop band. He likes the watch’s basic features, primarily the calendar function, which reminds him of his upcoming meetings.
“It’s nice not to pull my phone out every couple of minutes,” he added. “I turned off all the annoying stuff, Instagram notifications and Facebook notifications, because it was just too buzzy all the time.”
On the other hand, there is another category of first-movers, often techies, who really wanted to want wearables. They were first to embrace what’s sometimes also called the quantified self movement, attaching bands to their wrists to optimise daily routines. But, for one reason or another, many have since stashed their bands and watches in drawers, never again to see the light of day.
“I got one of the very first Fitbits. I used it obsessively,” said Samir Bhavnani, 39. “But I took it off one day. I went to charge it. Two weeks later, it still was sitting there on the charger.”
That was a year and a half ago. In the interim, he tried the Apple Watch Sport, which was an anniversary present from his wife. It ultimately ended up on her wrist instead.
“I didn’t like that I needed to charge another thing,” Bhavnani said. “There was not one compelling feature that made it worth that nightly charge.”
Erica OGrady, 37, of Boulder, Colo., similarly gave up on her Jawbone Up, a fitness and sleep tracker with an accompanying mobile app that debuted at the end of 2011. OGrady got her first Up in 2012 and loved the sleep-tracking features and the app, but ended up going through five devices over a seven-month period and gave up. She has since considered trying a Fitbit and turned down a free Garmin band. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the hassle of replacing malfunctioning gadgets.
“It got really frustrating,” she said of her Jawbone Up return-and-exchange experience. “If the hardware worked as well as the apps work, I’d be all in.”
In theory, OGrady may not have to wait too much longer for more impressive hardware.
“By the time we reach 2020, we will look back at devices we have today and say to ourselves, ‘My, my, my, they were state of the art, but by today’s standards, they are rather quaint,'” IDC’s Llamas said.
Quaint and maybe just a little bit silly. Bhavnani’s two 6-year-olds wear the Misfit Flash, a $30 waterproof band that tracks steps and calories but doesn’t need to be charged. The young girl and boy now treat exercise like a game. They run around the park, with one of their parent’s iPhones in tow, playing “Pokemon Go” in the hopes of reaching their daily activity goal.
Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t rule out “Pokemon Go’s” potential to raise the profile of fitness trackers and other wearables. Apparently, Jawbone Up wearers who played the augmented reality smartphone game over the weekend of July 9 logged 62.5 more steps on average than the prior weekend.
After all, if you’re going to spend your life chasing fictional characters, you might as well have data to prove you did something worthwhile with your time.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
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