Why the Fitness Trackers Days are Numbered

I had the privilege of being involved with a wearables panel at the Flash Summit held this week in Santa Clara, CA. As you perhaps know, flash memory of some type is used in all wearables to store data collected as it tracks and analyses the various functions on smart watches, Fitbits, Jawbones and pretty much any wearable device in the market today.

But as this panel looked at the actual fitness trackers and their link to healthcare, it become clear to me that, while fitness trackers blazed the trail in connecting wearables to health monitoring, as a standalone dedicated fitness tracking device, its days may be numbered. Fitness trackers as we know them fall under the category of application specific devices. That means they have a fixed set of applications embedded, such as step counting, heart rate monitoring, calories burned, etc. However, John Feland, the CEO of Argus Insights, pointed out their research shows around 60% of those who bought a dedicated fitness tracker stopped using them within 6 months of owning them. He likened them to being mini treadmills — people buy treadmills but soon after being excited about running or walking on them, they stop using them and they become expensive clothes hangers for many.

If I was a company that had only dedicated fitness trackers, I would be concerned with this research. I have no doubt fitness tracking and health monitoring is going to continue to be an important set of applications for millions of people. I just don’t know if a fitness tracker that only does these set functions alone has long-term legs.

What I believe will happen is the majority of the market for fitness wearables moves to using a smart watch to deliver this functionality. These watches will build in the kinds of sensors needed to handle the basics and eventually, even more complex health monitoring tools to make health monitoring a major application area that can be delivered on a smart watch. The key reason the watch becomes the vehicle for these fitness monitoring apps is smart watches are based on an OS platform that is very versatile and allows it to be many things to many people instead of only being a single focused device.

Today, smart watches are much more expensive than dedicated fitness trackers, which means that, if a person really needs to track steps, calories, etc, a fitness tracker is a better buy. But, over time, smart watches will come down in price and be much more attractive due to their ability to do many things instead of a single set of functions. What is more interesting to me is these watches are based on an OS and an SDK that allows third party software developers to create a plethora of applications and services well beyond fitness tracking. As a result, they can present to a user a richer set of applications that can be used on a smart watch that goes well beyond the set functions of just health monitoring.

Of course, we are in the early stages of smart watches but even with slow growth at first I suggest you do not write these products off. With the Apple Watch, we are already getting important glimpses of usage models where notifications, health monitoring and multiple levels of communications are functions people like. In June, at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, the company introduced the first full Watch SDK. I expect to see a lot of innovative apps that, over time, will strike the fancy of many people. But the key thing to understand about the watch is it is a wearable platform for developers to create apps that can make these products highly versatile. You can’t get that with a dedicated fitness tracker today and it is not a platform play so you won’t get it from these apps in the future either.

Think of it this way. Smart watches are a Swiss Army knife and fitness trackers are pocket knives. In my own way of thinking about this, I see a fitness tracker as being training wheels for smart watches. Over time, smart watches can still handle all of the health tracking features anyone wants but, in the watch, they get ten’s of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of other apps that make it more useful and highly personal. I don’t know how long dedicated fitness trackers will be around but the way I see it, their days are numbered.

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Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

20 thoughts on “Why the Fitness Trackers Days are Numbered”

  1. I think the basic issue is that trackers target dedicated exercisers/sportspeople (10% of the population ?) while watches target everyone, including kids and the senile. That doesn’t need to spell doom for trackers though, just that they shouldn’t be judged by smartwatch sales.
    I couldn’t find swiss army vs pocket knives sales. On a recent 40-people family gathering, we ended up with 10-ish pocket to 0 Swiss: can’t cut bread nor spread pâté with a swiss army knife. I’ve had an Opinel since I was a scout, and it got a lot of use. I don’t remember ever using the few swiss army knives I ended up losing/giving away. (Which reminds me, anyone want a LG G watch ?)
    I’m thinking the same might happen to fitness: feedback on smartwatches’ accuracy seems to point to issues, so smartwatches might not be a good tool for the tracking job. Plus in 2-3 generations, there might be a big choice to make: allocate power/space to trackers, or to a phone radio – I know which I’d prefer-. And finally, I can see a scenario where my tracker lives in my gym bag, while my watch provides non-sport utility.

    1. But the smartwatches are really in their early stages…They will get better, more accurate and even more durable. I just see them being a better alternative in the long run because of their added functionality.

      1. Tracking wise though, I need a device to track sleep, and it’d be nice if that could last roughly a week between charges. That would be the FitBit right now (assuming it tracks sleep accurately).

        Will a general purpose wearable be able to do that within five years? Or maybe Apple creates dedicated tiny wearables for stuff like this. There’s a lot of possibilities within the Apple Network of Things.

        1. I agree..We will see Sleep tracking apps for the Apple Watch this fall but the charging overnight issue will be the problem. Like you said maybe they create a side band that feeds data to the Watch while we sleep. Actually that would be a good third party device/app for someone to make.

          1. Specific tracking, such as sleep, might also be better served by a sensor somewhere other than the wrist. Perhaps the ear lobe or elsewhere. There could be an array of other wearables that feed data to the Watch and/or iPhone.

          2. While the charge doesn’t last a week, more than once I’ve gone to bed with my Microsoft Band and woken up with 100% charge (which makes absolutely no sense, but there it is).

      2. Absolutely. Fitness trackers will follow the path of mp3 players, gps navigators, and other one-function devices.

        The general-use/mass market will adopt multi-purpose solutions based on smart watches, smartphones, etc. while the only remaining dedicated devices will succeed by targeting niche of high-end, specialized users that want pro, prosumer, or unique functions/accuracy not provided by the mass-market products.

        The bigger revolution is in-car entertainment/nav systems – will the car-manufacturer provided proprietary/dedicated systems still exist or will everyone opt for connecting their smartphone to the car and letting the car only provide screen and handsfree a la Apple CarPlay and Google Car initiatives.

        Right now, car manufacturers are hedging their bets and offering both, but my vote is on the smartphone – heck, Jeep has to physically recall all their vehicles to patch a security flaw because they haven’t figured out how to do a software update OTA ! Ouch!

        1. It will be interesting to see what they do..and how much Apple wants their technology to be embedded or just accessed..will be fun to watch how car companies deal with this issue.

          1. The real question, which is beyond my expertise to speculate, is what is Apple’s true intentions vis a vis developing a car / self-driving car? Have you done any non-hyperbole analysis to try and determine whether they are doing R & D to provide aftermarket “smarter tech”, eventually license modules or functionality to car makers or actually have intention to field their own vehicle for sale to consumers?

      3. I wonder if Apple will really let the watch price fall a lot. I can see the previous generation being a bit lower, but their model in iPhones and iPods has never been to cheapen the devices. It’s happened in iPads, but I think that might be a special case due to the lack of strength in the pad market.
        While current ideas about the watch volumes aren’t as high as the pre-announcement numbers, it still seems it could be better than the iPad on a longer term basis. While I love my iPad Mini, I think I would live without it if it came down to my pad or my watch.

  2. It makes sense. Much like how smartphones are killing standalone MP3 players and even portable game machines.

    But I am still waiting for a fitness tracker/smartwatch that can accurately track heart rate while, you know, you are actually sweaty and exercising hard.

    I find it funny that “fitness” trackers largely don’t work well, at one of their main function when you are actually exercising.

    So I am sticking with the old school chest strap when I run my interval workouts for the foreseeable future.

    I would love to ditch the chest strap. But I figure there are still a lot of technical hurdles for this.

    1. Curious about this, and if you have tried it with the Apple watch to compare. I’ve heard very mixed things about this so I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I interviewed some folks who have had very inaccurate comparisons between Apple Watch and a chest strap, then I hear from about the same amount of people that the Apple watch tracks nearly identically to their chest strap. Kind of odd to see such a wide range and no leaning percentage toward either end of the scale so I don’t know if this is something which is conditional or not.

      1. Variety of factors, including how vigorous you exercise, how much pigment is in your skin, how it fits your arm, etc… Optical sensors are finicky devices for reading this info at your wrist.


        “Why aren’t these devices as accurate as a chest strap? One clue is that they seem to be more accurate when not running and, in the studies we’ve seen, they are more accurate for slower runners.”

  3. Multi-functional devices work well when the physical form of the device suits many uses. A refrigerator/toaster is a terrible idea, whereas the multi-touch smart phone obsoleted many older devices by providing an ideal physical form for a variety of purposes.

    A smart watch that is also a fitness tracker is a natural fit, living on the wrist just like a fitness tracker, weighing very little, and having appropriate sensors and connectivity for the purpose. The technology, where it isn’t ideal yet, will improve.

    The only possible refuge for fitness trackers seems likely to be low cost and specialized niche uses.

    1. Well, there are a few precedents. Apple did lower the price of iPhone shortly after its release; as a new product category, Apple Watch might face the same kind of market adjustment. And while Apple does not typically drop the price of iPhones, they do sell prior-gen versions at lower prices while keeping the current gen at the same price normally.

      Having said that, I don’t see a price drop in Apple Watch’s immediate future myself – I suspect Apple will instead promote increased functionality, faster chips, better battery life, etc. instead of lower pricing.

  4. Sensors are all that matter for wearables. You put sensors on people, and their phones link into the sensors. to get more functions you need better software to use that data. and the sensors have to feel non-invasive, look cool and be comfy. A fitbit can do a lot more but the software and algorithms haven’t been developed. when these things can connect into other applications readily and others can capitalize on that data. then we will see. Watches are not the future, because a tiny pretty bracelet is a lot easier to wear, and much more common on people.

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