Why Intel Shouldn’t Get Into The Fitness-Tracker Business


Owen Thomas

March 6, 2014

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self. 

Intel is reportedly buying Basis, the maker of a health-oriented smartwatch, though the companies have yet to confirm a deal.

It's an intriguing moment for the wearable-computing market. Let’s just hope that this doesn't mean Intel is getting into the crowded, confusing business of making fitness trackers. (An Intel representative declined to comment, and Basis cofounder Marco Della Torre did not respond to an emailed inquiry.)

There’s a lot Intel can do to help the wearables sector take off—and Basis actually has some assets that can help. Those assets just don’t happen to be in the field of hardware.

No Basis In Reality

Basis’s B1 Band is—how to put this delicately?—a bad product. It's the kind of gadget we typically see early in a product category’s life cycle, overloaded with not-fully-baked features and off-the-mark design.

The hype around the Basis B1 was high: It promised to analyze your sleep quality and stress levels by continuously monitoring your heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature. That made it far more advanced than typical fitness trackers that just detect your body’s motion to measure exercise and activity. But it failed to deliver on that hype.

I’ve tested lots of fitness-related wearables, and the B1 was surely one of the fastest to hit the bottom of my file cabinet's gadget drawer. The first device I got was simply broken: It wouldn’t pair with my iPhone. The company quickly replaced that one with another unit, which sometimes succeeded in pairing, but still proved far more finicky than other devices.

I was most curious about the B1’s heart-rate features. It uses optical heart-rate monitoring, which is a newer method than the electrical heart-rate measurement Polar pioneered decades ago. That lets Basis track your heart rate from your wrist rather than using the traditional chest strap runners, cyclists, and athletes typically use.

The problem: In my testing, the B1’s heart-rate measurements were wildly inaccurate, both at rest and during exertion. They bore no correspondence to physical reality. My steps, too, seemed to be significantly off from what other devices tracked.

See also: New Fitness Trackers Will Record Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make

I’m not the only one: Basis customers have complained on the company’s forums about its inaccurate measurements. The company line here is that the B1 is sampling heart rate over time to measure changes. But if it can’t take an accurate reading when it samples heart rate, how can we possibly trust any trends based off those measurements?

I also found the Basis uncomfortable and, well, ugly. Women I showed it to were particularly averse to its look—a not-uncommon reaction. Basis apparently chose to target men with its design, but it may not have ended up pleasing anyone.

So What’s Intel Buying Exactly?

Buying Basis could still prove a smart move for Intel. Sure, Intel has tons of hardware smarts, and could likely fix some of Basis’s Bluetooth problems. But it's far more intriguing to think about what Intel could do with Basis's software.

For all of the device’s flaws, the Basis app and website are elegant and thoughtfully designed. Basis’s emphasis on “habits”—taking more steps, getting more sleep, moving around at work, exercising harder and longer—could actually help people improve their health, if the underlying data were more trustworthy.

I would have loved to use Basis’s app to analyze data from my other fitness devices—something that could happen if Basis opened up its application programming interface, or API. (The company has been promising to do that for years, but hasn’t yet.)

See also: You Can't Change Your Genes—But Genes May Change Your Workouts

Other fitness startups, like MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, have seen massive growth from opening up their apps to input from all kinds of devices. And the best thing is by taking in feeds from existing gadgets on the market, they don't have to get into the difficult, expensive hardware business, or force their users to choose one particular device.

What if Intel combined some of the pieces it was putting together—like the Edison chipset it unveiled at CES and its Mashery subsidiary, which manages APIs on behalf of other companies—to make a killer platform for digital fitness? To any hardware hacker who wanted to build on top of Edison, Intel could have Mashery manage connections with all the popular fitness apps out there. And Basis—if the deal goes through as expected—could provide user-interface and data-analysis libraries that turn biological signals into clues about improving our health.

Just like it did with PCs, Intel can supply all sides in the new arm race. It doesn't need its own watch on your wrist to do that.

Lead image by Basis

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