Fitness Wearables Must Smarten Up Or Die—Just Ask Nike’s Fuelband

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

The first age of wearable devices is coming to an end—and the next generation will either be considerably smarter, or will disappear into our smartphones entirely.

Consider the news that Nike is drastically cutting back on its FuelBand hardware efforts, while Facebook is buying Moves, a smartphone app that tracks your steps and other activities.

Death To The Glorified Pedometer

I’ve long called devices like the FuelBand “glorified pedometers.” Simple wristbands with accelerometers, like the FuelBand, Jawbone Up, and Fitbit, simply aren’t going to cut it going forward—especially when our phones can do most of what they do already. Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf likes to point out that we spend most of the day with our phones anyway, making them “the ultimate wearable device.”

Google and Apple are actively building step-tracking features into their mobile hardware and software. It’s pretty clear that Facebook, which is also actively courting mobile app developers, also wants to add that commodity feature into its platform with its purchase of Moves.


Are devices like the Fitbit an endangered species?

Even Fitbit seems to acknowledge this reality: Its app will now track activity on an iPhone 5S, no extra device required. Likewise, RunKeeper’s new Breeze app takes advantage of the iPhone 5S’s motion-detecting M7 coprocessor. And Human, an activity-tracking app that runs on smartphones, will likely see a new wave of interest after Facebook’s buyout of rival Moves.

Meanwhile, broader wrist-based devices like the Pebble and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear family include accelerometers and other sensors, too. With the right apps, they can instantly become activity trackers. Apple’s rumored iWatch could take a similar tack.

Survival Of The Fittest

So is the wearables market doomed? No, but it must evolve quickly.

Already, there’s a second generation of wearable devices coming to market that are far smarter than the FuelBand and its ilk. Instead of crudely counting steps, some detect minute vibrations that indicate precisely how the body is moving, allowing them to detect a pushup, a squat, or a plank. Others have advanced sensors able to serve up our body temperature, pulse, perspiration, and other biological signals.


Step-tracking apps on phones will replace first-generation fitness wearables.

Nike likely looked at this landscape and realized it couldn’t catch up. The company had already hobbled itself through its closed-off approach to innovation. (Nike has a Nike+ application programing interface for developers, but access is by invitation only.) Contrast that to the approach of Nike’s upstart archrival, Under Armour, which bought MapMyFitness last year in part for its skill with connecting to other app developers

To earn a place on our wrist, future wearables will have to be far smarter than the FuelBand. And to win over developers, fitness software platforms must be far more open than Nike’s.

The bar has been set high: You’ll have to compete with Apple and Samsung in hardware and Facebook and Google in software. Only the most athletic startups will survive and thrive. Just do it.

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