Wearables are having a moment right now and it’s easy to imagine a limitless horizon ahead. But within the world of wearables, a reckoning is coming for dedicated fitness trackers.
While the fitness device category has soared in recent years, most of these products will eventually be swallowed up by smartphones and smart watches offering “good enough” functionality. Even the winners of the fitness tracker race will face an uphill battle against a legion of smart devices.
Now, clearly I have a vested interest in this space as the founder and CEO of fitness app RunKeeper. But my views on how this market will play out are informed by my experience helping almost 30 million users to be active. And they are shaped by a consistent pattern the consumer electronics industry has followed for years.
To be sure, there will be a place for very specific fitness trackers that go deep in one area or are geared toward advanced users. But for mainstream usage, fitness tracking will be handled largely by general purpose devices, whether smartphones or eventually a whole class of smart watches working independently or in concert with a phone.
This pattern has played itself out before. Before the modern smartphone era began, music players, GPS devices, point-and-shoot cameras and portable video cameras all flourished. But the smartphone, with its combination of portable sensors, connectivity and apps, eventually replaced these dedicated devices for everyday use, relegating them to the sidelines. The same future awaits dedicated fitness trackers.
It’s not just history that fitness trackers must contend with. Other challenges include:
- Friction: While fitness trackers promote a vision of effortless monitoring, there’s quite a bit of friction involved, from paying for a separate device to needing to charge it, sync it, and put it on every day. Every added bit of friction increases the odds that your tracker will end up on your bureau instead of your wrist.
- Fragmentation: As more of these devices proliferate, it is an increasing challenge to consolidate the data you care about into a single view. And if you’re trying to benefit from the social motivation of your peers, it’s tough when everyone is using a different device and tracking data separately.
- Poor engagement: For all of the promise of fitness tracking, most of the data that is tracked today is not utilized effectively to help people make sustained changes to their behaviour. The data in itself isn’t valuable; the real promise lies in the motivational ability to improve people’s engagement around their health in a sustained way.
So what will the winning tracking solution look like?
There is no doubt it will be software-only. With better and better devices available, like the iPhone 5S with its M7 motion co-processor or emerging smart watches like the Pebble and the rumoured iWatch, the need for dedicated fitness tracking devices is being diminished by the day. No one wants to purchase, wear and maintain a redundant device.
The winning software will come as an integrated suite. People care about more than one kind of data, and multiple data types is essential to get a full picture of your health. It is important that the winning solution provides a comprehensive view across the key data types that you care about. Trying to jam them into one experience is a recipe for bloatware. A tightly integrate suite of apps with an underlying layer of unification is the way to go.
More than tracking our movements, we need a solution that will help us stay motivated and engaged to make the right decisions about our health. Every person is different, and the winning solution will provide personalised guidance and motivation to each user based on everything the system knows about that user, others using the service, and the relevant context from their surroundings.
We are in the early innings of this transition, but it will happen faster than you think. I still remember everyone insisting in 2008 that no one would ever run or ride their bikes with their phone doing the tracking, when they could buy a dedicated fitness device to do the same thing. Now, far more people use their phone to track their runs and bike rides than any dedicated fitness devices. Six years later, people are saying the same thing about always-on fitness tracking, and it is just a matter of time before history repeats itself yet again.
If you want to see which fitness tracking device will go mainstream in a sustained way, look no further than the phone you already have in your pocket.