Apps Are Eating Wearables’ Lunch


Owen Thomas

July 18, 2014

My Jawbone Up24 fitness band failed the other week during a session of hot yoga. I knew better than to take the water-sensitive device into the shower, but it didn’t occur to me that the river of sweat coming off my body, combined with the heat in the room, would be similarly hazardous to the device’s health.

It was time for the Up to go anyway: I needed to make room on my overcrowded arm to test yet another fitness-tracking device. But I found I was missing my Up when Jawbone recently unveiled new food-tracking features.

How will fitness trackers earn their place on our wrists?

No need: When I launched the Up’s companion app, it complained meekly about my missing band, but I discovered that it worked perfectly well as a food tracker, no $150 gadget required. 

And before it failed, I’d found that many of the Up’s features really lived in software, not hardware. Before that final, fatal yoga session, I’d log my workouts with a “stopwatch” feature, which really wasn’t that different from recording them in a smartphone app like GymGoal or MapMyFitness. 

Amusingly, my Up band would often trigger an inactivity alert an hour into my practice, because its accelerometers couldn’t recognize that while I wasn’t bouncing around, I was actually working pretty hard. In this case, the hardware wasn’t just superfluous—it was counterproductive to tracking my activity.

Wearables Wearing Thin

Jawbone isn’t the only wearable company whose moves I see as putting the whole “wearable” thing in question. Fitbit’s iPhone app no longer requires one of the company’s devices to track steps if you use it with an iPhone 5S, whose M7 chip can accurately track movement. You can also log your sleep manually

While Fitbit won’t get profitable hardware sales off of users who just use the app, it benefits from their data, and they also join the social network of friends using Fitbit, which may encourage them to stick with Fitbit’s family of products versus switching to competing devices.

Misfit, the maker of an activity tracker called Shine, also appears to be reconsidering the whole hardware thing. It recently introduced a version of its software which essentially turns a Pebble smartwatch into a fitness tracker—no Shine required. Its latest product, Beddit, tracks your sleep from your mattress—nothing to wear on your body.

One experienced digital-fitness entrepreneur notes that the company, which originally went by “Misfit Wearables,” is less inclined to use its full name these days. (Misfit hasn’t responded to a request for comment on whether it plans to formally drop “Wearables” from its name.)

Where does all this leave fitness-oriented hardware? As I’ve long argued, they’ll have to track more than just steps to merit a place on the wrist. But it’s increasingly smartwatches like the Samsung Gear Fit and Gear Live that include more sophisticated biosensors for measuring things like heart rate.

One way for devices to distinguish themselves will be to fully embrace their role as fashion items, as Fitbit is doing with its new Tory Burch line. Another direction is to melt into smartphones as apps, with some small percentage of users opting for hardware that adds a little more detail to their data.

The challenge for fitness apps borne out of trackers will be facing off with companies who have always lived purely in the app world, like RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal. They’ve learned to live with the limitations of phone hardware, in exchange for the broad reach they get with consumers. And these apps are typically free—making it a hard transition for companies used to hardware profit margins.

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