The shape of wearables to come: fitness trackers, smartwatches, and the Apple Watch

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The shape of wearables to come: fitness trackers, smartwatches, and the Apple Watch

Analysts agree: wearables are the future. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 1 in 5 Americans now own some sort of wearable device. What exactly is a wearable device? It could be a pair of smart glasses, like Google Glass, or a smartwatch, like the upcoming Apple Watch. They also count fitness bands and smart clothing. Analysts believe that the wearable market is going to double over the next two years, paralleling the growth of the tablet market.

There’s a big difference between wearables and a tablet, however. Research from Endeavour Partners shows that one-third of Americans who have owned a wearable stopped wearing it within six months. CCS Insight in the UK found that 40% of Brits gave up on wearables because they either got bored with them or forgot to put them on.

Charles Arthur at The Guardian postulates that, unlike tablets or other tech devices, if wearables aren’t perfect, people will give up on them. He puts forth the idea that wearables are more like MP3 players: you can tell that early products are "transformative", but the first generation of devices doesn’t live up to the category’s potential. Can you name an MP3 player before the iPod? Probably not, even though there were dozens of models.

Ben Thompson of Stratechery thinks that the wearable market before and after the Apple Watch will be similar to the iPod, but on an even grander scale. Why will Apple succeed where others have failed? Fashion. "It’s on this point specifically that most critics – including myself – have failed to appreciate Apple’s approach," Thompson wrote in March. "Since I’m a geek I dismissed [the importance of the Watch’s appearance], but normal consumers, especially in the case of a wearable, absolutely will not."

The original Pebble smartwatch.

I’ve been interested in wearables since the Pebble launched on Kickstarter in 2012. I wasn’t a backer, but I did end up receiving the Pebble as a gift not long after it made it on store shelves.

I loved the idea of the Pebble. As a student, I was constantly torn between paying attention in class and paying attention to the constant buzz in my pocket. What if I missed an emergency text? A call from a future employer?

Would I rush out of class if I received either of those two things? Maybe, but that’s not really important; it was the anxiety of not knowing what those buzzes indicated that bugged me. I’m not the only person who feels this way: others have written articles on how to deal with notifications and Apple employees say this is one of the reasons the Apple Watch exists.

"It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life," writes David Pierce at Wired. "Like the rest of us, Ive, Lynch, Dye, and everyone at Apple are subject to the tyranny of the buzz—the constant checking, the long list of nagging notifications… What if you could create a device that could filter out all the bullshit and instead only serve you truly important information?"

Pebble was not that device. Due to limitations in the software, Pebble could only show me all of the push notifications I set up on my phone - even notifications that I set up to not buzz in my pocket but still show up on my phone’s lock screen.

I cut down notifications from the phone, but still the buzzing bothered me. There’s nothing subtle about the way Pebble notifies you: it’s a loud, hard vibration against your wrist. Instead of getting anxious when I received a buzz against my leg, I got anxious about the constant buzzing on my wrist.

Pebble was revolutionary in bringing notifications to the wrist, but it was a blunt tool. Apple is hoping that its Taptic Engine will help bring subtlety to wearable notifications. The Taptic Engine promises to give you a light tap on the wrist instead of the hard buzz in other smartwatches. We’ll have to wait until it’s released to see if their approach succeeds over Pebble’s.

After a few months of wearing the Pebble, I developed a small rash on my wrist from the cheap plastic case of the Pebble (similar complaints have been lodged against Fitbit’s products). I took it off for a few days to let the rash clear up. I never put it back on.

Hopefully not the future of wearable tech. Source: Radio-Craft magazine cover, April 1948.

My interest in wearables didn’t end with the Pebble. Last spring, I bought a used Jawbone UP24, which at the time was Jawbone’s high-end fitness tracker (it’s since been usurped by the UP3.)

I mostly wanted the UP24 because I was fascinated by it (curiosity kills the wallet, especially mine). But it was a fun and satisfying thing to track for me: living and studying in New York City meant that walking was my main form of transportation. I used to laugh in the face of the standard issue 10,000 steps per day goal, continually crushing it day after day.

I also wanted to track how much I was sleeping. I knew I wasn’t sleeping enough and that the quality of the sleep I did get was pretty poor. UP24 represented a step towards trying to understand the relationship between activity, caffeine consumption (through the companion UP Coffee app), and sleep.

I’m not the only one on the PolicyGenius team trying to understand why I suck at sleeping. Read Chris’ exploration of bad sleep habits.

The Jawbone UP24.

I wore it for a few months, then stopped, and then tried wearing it again for another month. My biggest issue with it is that it was just plain uncomfortable. Mine was too tight on the top and bottom, but had extra room on the sides. There was no way to adjust it, either: the band is pretty rigid, so unless it fits your wrist just right, it’s always going to be kind of awkward.

It also didn’t look that good. I’m not the most fashion conscious person in the world, but I also don’t want to look like a child or an idiot. Wearing an oversized black plastic bracelet made me feel like both.

Analysts think that the basic fitness band is going to be replaced by the smartwatch, and looking at the these companies’ product pages, it’s not hard to see them scrambling to keep up. Jawbone has a $50 "fitness clip" that has the same functionality as the more expensive UP24 band. On the other end, their new high-end band, the UP3, now has a heart monitor. You can also look at the wide range of Fitbit’s trackers, which start at $59.99 and go all the way up to $249.99, to get a sense of how these companies are trying to diversify their offerings. Fitbit’s bands also have small screens for phone notifications.

The full Fitbit product line.

Both the Apple Watch and the Android Wear platform have fitness tracking features that match or exceed most of these fitness trackers, though usually at a premium price. But smartwatches also have a leg up on these fitness trackers: smartwatches feature a better notification system, they have third-party apps, and they are usually more fashionable.

I don’t think that fitness trackers are going away - those $50 fitness clips will get cheaper and high-end bands will try to add more niche features - but for most consumers, smartwatches are more valuable and more enticing.

I might be a tad bit geekier than most, so I asked some of my coworkers (quote unquote normal consumers) if they had ever owned a wearable or fitness tracker. I was able to talk to three of them about their past experience with wearable devices and if they were excited for wearables in the future.

Jennifer Fitzgerald, co-founder

The Basis B1 (now discontinued).

Jennifer’s first wearable was a Basis B1 (now discontinued). She bought it in August 2013 and wore it every day for about seven or eight months. She stopped wearing it because "it was bulky and charging it and uploading data became too much of a chore." She did observe a change in her habits, becoming "more conscious of daily step count," but after the initial excitement wore off, she went back to "normal bad habits." The B1 was also "bulky and would catch on coat sleeves and backpack straps."

She switched to the Fitbit Charge HR in January of this year, which she is still wearing every day. So far she hasn’t observed any change in her habits, but she does "look back on the data and feel bad… so that’s a start!" People have noticed her wearing the Fitbit and asked her questions about it. Jennifer has no interest in another wearable device at this time.

Francois de Lame, co-founder

Francois’ first and only wearable is also the Fitbit Charge HR, which he started using January of this year. So far, he’s worn it every day. Francois said that "in the beginning, it did motivate me to do more exercise and monitor my health more closely." He used it with the Fitbit Aria, a WiFi connected smart scale, so that he could "see a direct correlation between activity and weight." He doesn’t believe the heart rate monitor is accurate during exercising, "which is annoying." Francois hasn’t worn a watch in several years, and he says that he "quite likes having it on after not wearing a watch for so long."

Francois is interested in the Apple Watch, "hoping it will be more accurate when it comes to fitness monitoring," but is skeptical about apps, notifications, and other features of the device.

Interested in how Apple Watch apps could revolutionize personal finance? Check out our article on the coolest money apps launching with the Apple Watch.

Chris Walters, blog editor

The Fitbit One.

Chris’ first wearable was a Fitbit One that he started using in June of 2013. Since Chris is a writer, I’ll turn this one over to him:

"I immediately became obsessed with the number of steps taken and the flights climbed. I lived in Inwood when I bought it, and because it's hilly there are lots of outdoor stairs, so I started deliberately taking those to bump my stair count higher. If anything, I got too obsessed with it and had to start eating more to keep from losing weight because I was spending all my free time walking instead of taking the subway."

Chris switched to a Fitbit Charge (not to be confused with the Fitbit Charge HR) in December 2014. Again, here’s Chris:

"I already had habits in play due to the previous Fitbit device, but the Charge tracks sleep as well, so that has become a new measurement for me to focus on. I've found that I no longer care as much about steps taken or stairs climbed (I still check them out, but they don't consume as much attention), because now I care about how many hours of sleep I get. I'm tracking the sleep on my iPhone by pushing the Fitbit data to Apple's Health app via a third party app called Sync Solver, and now I'm working to increase my average sleep duration to above 6 hours.

"I do feel a little embarrassed [wearing it] sometimes, but for the most part it's not visible because it's winter and my arms are always covered. I'm a little concerned about wearing it with short sleeves because it will really stand out and everyone will know what a nerd I am. I'm hoping I'll get used to this and it won't bother me after a few weeks, and as of right now I remain committed to wearing it 24/7."

Chris has expressed interest in the Apple Watch in the past, but is trying to abstain from any news about it because he doesn’t want to impulse buy a $400 watch.

At this point, I’ve given up on standalone fitness trackers completely. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on fitness tracking, however.

I upgraded to an iPhone 6 this spring, which can track the amount of steps you take and flights of stairs you climb straight from the device. To replace the sleep tracker, I’ve started using an app called Sleep Cycle. Sleep Cycle supposedly can see how high quality your sleep is by measuring your movement through vibrations in the mattress, but I don’t really pay attention to that. I just want to see the total amount that I slept that night.

With Apple’s Health app, I can manually enter data from my workouts at the gym. I don’t run or cycle outside, but if I did, I would probably strap my phone to my arm and use Strava to track it.

I still use UP Coffee to track my caffeine intake (they recently updated their app to integrate with Apple’s HealthKit, which is awesome because I sent an email to them requesting this last fall and now I feel like my voice has been heard). I also use an app called Lark to analyze my step, workout, and sleep data and give me cool motivational speeches.

I don’t think I would ever buy another standalone fitness tracker again. The only thing a high-end fitness band can do that my phone can’t is track my heart rate. I could pay $250 for a fitness band with a heart rate monitor, but at that point, why don’t I just save that money and put towards an Apple Watch? I’m already deeply invested in Apple’s HealthKit system; the watch’s fitness apps would feed right into that and provide a new way to interact with my existing data.

The Apple Watch

I also believe that Apple has solved my biggest annoyance with the Pebble with their subtle Taptic Engine. I haven’t felt the Taptic Engine myself, but early previews of the device say that it really does feel like someone tapping you lightly on the wrist. I’m also really excited to see what kind of apps third-party developers make for the device.

Will the Apple Watch be the end-all be-all of the wearable market? Probably not. Standalone fitness trackers will have their niche and Android Wear will only get better. But there’s a very good chance that, just like the iPhone defined the smartphone, the Apple Watch will define the wearables market moving forward.

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