Fitness Trackers Are Still Waiting For Their “iPod Moment”

The fitness-tracker market is exploding. There are a ton of new devices on the market to track steps, sleep, heart rate, and other bodily metrics, many unveiled earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. One reporter tried on 56 different models on display at the event.

I don’t know if this Cambrian explosion of gadgets can be a good thing. Only one in ten consumers currently has a fitness tracker, which suggests that they have yet to become truly mainstream, despite their potential health benefits.

What the market really needs is a mass extinction event, some Darwinian species-killer of a product that wipes out the less fit and leaves a few strong players to survive. We need some asteroid of a product that blows everyone else away.

Looking For The iPod Moment

There are very few examples of this kind of category dominance.

Let’s wind the clock back a decade. The year was 2004, and Apple’s iPod—the iconic music player that turned around the company’s fortunes and transformed it from a computer company into a consumer-electronics giant was on the verge of ubiquity. 

Its market share would peak at 92 percent. Apple CEO Steve Jobs bragged to Newsweek how the iPod and its iconic white earbuds were taking over cities:

“I was on Madison, and it was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s starting to happen.'” 

How did the iPod achieve ubiquity? Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, but it improved it, taking advantage of smaller hard drives to create a more compact yet capacious player than had previously existed. It also, crucially, improved the interface so that it was easy to play all those songs. Then Apple cunningly cornered the market on the parts needed to build similar devices. No one could catch up with it.

Palm, too, back in the day, cornered the market on personal digital accessories—those contacts-and-calendars pocket computers which predated and anticipated smartphones.

Survival Of The Fittest

I don’t see anyone in the fitness-tracker market employing similar tactics. There are plenty of examples of good design: Withings’ Activité Pop, for example, shines with its watch-like good looks and eight-month battery life.

But the Activité Pop, at $150, just does steps and sleep tracking—a commodity offering. And its companion app, Withings Health Mate, is unremarkable, offering the same features you see in a host of similar fitness apps. It’s a good device, and its design will surely sell some people on it, but it’s not the killer we need.

Likewise, I like the Runtastic Orbit, which is the best example I’ve found of integration between hardware, software, and services—but I have a hard time seeing it get the distribution it needs. And because it’s closely tied to Runtastic’s apps, it suffers from the extreme fragmentation that rules the fitness-app market, too.

Fitbit is the leader in selling fitness trackers at retail right now, but their Charge and Surge models are, I feel, just keeping up with the competition, not breaking away.

What about the Apple Watch? What about it, indeed? First of all, it’s a smartwatch, not a fitness tracker—and NPD reports that smartwatches are far behind fitness trackers in consumer interest and adoption. They’re more expensive, harder to keep charged, and more demandingly twiddly in their interfaces.

Before Apple launched the iPod, it started offering iTunes software for managing collections of digital music, which gave it a ready-made audience. iTunes users became tied to the iPod, and vice versa—a virtuous cycle where software drove hardware sales. (I know it’s popular to complain about iTunes these days, but back in the 2000s, iTunes blew away competing tools for managing music libraries.)

Apple had an opportunity to do something similar with HealthKit and its companion Health app, and it blew it, big time. HealthKit is glitchy and the Health app just isn’t very good. If Apple had strong fitness software and collections of workout and nutrition data—the health equivalent of those iTunes libraries—it would be set up for an easy entrance into the fitness-tracker market. 


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As it is, I think the Apple Watch will do very well in the smartwatch category. I just don’t think many people will use its fitness features, and those interested in health tracking will gravitate to dedicated devices. 

Who wins in a fragmented hardware market? I think it will be the fitness apps that pull in data from the widest possible range of devices and sort it and make sense of it all. The leading contenders here include MyFitnessPal, Under Armour’s Connected Fitness group, and Jawbone, whose app no longer requires a companion Up. 

Indeed, if someone doesn’t come along with an iPod- or Palm-like smash hit that dominates the market, we may see fitness-tracking functions fade into smartphones. Our phones are with us constantly, after all, and we might as well think of them as wearables for all the time they spend in our pockets or otherwise on our persons.

It’s a pity, because I can see a role for fitness trackers. While steps are trivial, more sophisticated movement analysis as well as heart-rate measurement and sleep tracking need a wrist-based device.

If only there were one device to explain and define the market, the way the iPod did for MP3 players and Palm did for PDAs. Without that, the fitness-tracker market may rise and fall quickly—a blip in the evolutionary history of gadgets.

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

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