How Samsung Will Force Fitness Apps Open

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear, designed with fitness tracking in mind, has prompted a frenzy of enthusiasm among app developers.

But the Gear's announcement isn't the end of what ReadWrite has dubbed the "arm race"—the battle among computing devices for space on your wrist. It's just the very beginning.

And for creators of apps that aim to connect to these devices, the question isn't which one to bet on. The question is how they'll connect to as many as possible.

Wrist Real Estate

I've been critical of wrist-based wearables in the past, partly because of my distaste for watches in general. But the EB Sync Burn I've been wearing in recent weeks has led me to rethink that.

That's because the Sync Burn doesn't just sit on my wrist: It actually makes use of biological signals to track my heart rate. A smartphone in my pocket can't do that.

To justify its place on the wrist, a smartwatch must do more than just display notifications and make phone calls. It need to actually displace other devices, consolidating our gadget load down into fewer devices.

That's what the iPhone did: It replaced phones, cameras, MP3 players, and PDAs with a single device. Other smartphones folllowed that model.

Smartwatches must do the same act of collapsing multiple gadgets into one. Standalone fitness trackers, like those made by Fitbit and Jawbone, are likely targets. (So, too, is the Sync Burn and similar devices, once smart watches incorporate heart-rate detection.)

Multiple Devices, Many Platforms

Unfortunately for developers, it seems unlikely that the smartwatch space will winnow itself down the way smartphones did to two dominant platforms, Apple's iOS and Google's Android. So developers should prepare for a panoply of devices, and aim to make their apps and the services they connect to as open as possible.

For some, that's already happening. Jason Jacobs, the CEO of RunKeeper, a fitness-tracking app, tells me that he's seeing heart-rate monitors hit the market that connect to his app that he and his team hadn't heard of.

"There was no partnership or formal integration," he says. "They just worked."

MapMyFitness, a rival app maker, has been pushing more formal partnerships, integrating with a wide variety of devices, including Fitbit's and Polar's lines of activity trackers, as well as many others.

Runtastic, meanwhile, has been making its own branded fitness-tracking devices to integrate with its app and website. But like RunKeeper, it's also launching a Gear app.

Consumers face a morass of choices: broadly functional smart watches with some fitness features; specialized fitness devices that may or may not connect with their favorite services; and vertically integrated hardware/software/services combos, like those from Runtastic and Pear Sports.

May The Most Open Win The Arm Race

App developers, already strained by developing for iOS, Android, and the Web, could go broke if they do one-off implementations for every device around—especially without any certainty over which ones will prove to be winners.

Rather than delivering monolithic apps, they'll have to break their software down into distinctive services that they can efficiently deliver on smaller screens. They'll need to define new application programming interfaces—if not for the general public, then at least for themselves, so that their own coders can plug each new hardware platform into those services.

But it's even better (and cheaper) if they make the hardware manufacturers do the work by publishing open software and data specs—and having fitness trackers and smartwatches compete on the basis of how widely they connect.

The digital health space seems poised for a Darwinian explosion of devices and apps—and a brutal competition between them. May the most open and connected win.