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Fitness Trackers: Why Their Days Are Numbered

Think of it this way: Smartwatches are a Swiss Army Knife, and fitness trackers are pocket knives.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry. (Insider Exclusives registration required for this one.)

I had the privilege of being involved with a wearables panel at the Flash Memory Summit held last week in Santa Clara, Calif. As you perhaps know, flash memory of some type is used in all wearables to store data collected as it tracks and analyzes the various functions on smartwatches, Fitbits, Jawbones and pretty much any wearable device in the market today.

But as this panel looked at the actual fitness trackers and their link to health care, it become clear to me that while fitness trackers blazed the trail in connecting wearables to health monitoring, as standalone dedicated fitness-tracking devices, their days may be numbered. Fitness trackers as we know them fall under the category of application-specific devices. That means they have a fixed set of applications embedded, such as step counting, heart-rate monitoring, calories burned, etc.

However, Argus Insights CEO John Feland pointed out that his company’s research shows that around 60 percent of those who bought a dedicated fitness tracker stopped using it within six months of owning it. He likened the devices to mini-treadmills — people buy treadmills, but soon after being excited about running or walking on them, they stop using them, and they become expensive clothes hangers for many.

If I were a company that offered only dedicated fitness trackers, I would be concerned with this research. I have no doubt that fitness tracking and health monitoring is going to continue to be an important set of applications for millions of people. I just don’t know if a fitness tracker that only does these set functions alone has long-term legs.

What I believe will happen is that the majority of the market for fitness wearables will move to using a smartwatch to deliver this functionality. These watches will build in the kinds of sensors needed to handle the basics, and eventually even more complex health-monitoring tools, to make health monitoring a major application area that can be delivered on a smartwatch. The key reason that the watch becomes the vehicle for these fitness-monitoring apps is that smartwatches are based on an OS platform that is very versatile, and allows it to be many things to many people instead of only being a single-focused device.

Today, smartwatches are much more expensive than dedicated fitness trackers, which means that if a person really needs to track steps, calories, etc, a fitness tracker is a better buy. But over time, smartwatches will come down in price and be much more attractive due to their ability to do many things instead of a single set of functions.

What is more interesting to me is that these watches are based on an OS and an SDK that allows third-party software developers to create a plethora of applications and services well beyond fitness tracking. As a result, they can present to a user a richer set of applications that can be used on a smartwatch that goes well beyond the set functions of just health monitoring.

Of course, we are in the early stages of smartwatches, but even with slow growth at first, I would suggest that you do not write these products off. With the Apple Watch, we are already getting important glimpses of usage models where notifications, health monitoring and multiple levels of communications are functions that people like.

At the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in June, the company introduced the first full Watch SDK. I expect to see a lot of innovative apps that, over time, will strike the fancy of many people. But the key thing to understand about the Apple Watch is it is a wearable platform for developers to create apps that can make these products highly versatile. You can’t get that with a dedicated fitness tracker today, and it is not a platform play, so you won’t get it from these apps in the future, either.

Think of it this way: Smartwatches are a Swiss Army Knife, and fitness trackers are pocket knives. In my own way of thinking about this, I see a fitness tracker as being training wheels for smartwatches. Over time, smartwatches can still handle all of the health-tracking features anyone wants, but in the watch, they get tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of other apps that make it more useful and highly personal. I don’t know how long dedicated fitness trackers will be around, but the way I see it, their days are numbered.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

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