Survival of the fittest: Apple Watch versus fitness trackers

Survival of the fittest: Apple Watch versus fitness trackers

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Will Apple Watch win the fitness-tracking race? Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr CC
Will Apple Watch win the fitness-tracking race? Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr CC

Apple Watch is entering the race to become the leader in wearable tech. And dedicated fitness trackers like the Nike+ FuelBand, Fitbit and Jawbone Up may struggle to keep up with Cupertino’s pace.

Few people remember the MP3 players that iPod left in its wake. Smartphones overtaken by iPhone shared a similar dismal fate. Could fitness wearables be next on the endangered list?

For Nike’s digital devices, the answer seems to be yes. A recent update to their Nike+ Fuel app added activity tracking that pulls data from late-model iPhones’ motion sensors, so the raison d’être for the FuelBand is gone. And with a new Nike+ app for Apple Watch, their GPS SportWatch also seems redundant.

Nike enjoys a longstanding relationship with Apple, dating back to the launch of the Nike + iPod Sport Kit in 2006. This involved Nike redesigning all of its running shoes to accommodate a sensor. But in their latest range of shoes, the slot for the sensor is no longer there. Nike’s technology strategy appears to now be software-only, and given their insider knowledge of all things Apple, they might well be a bellwether for the entire sector.

When Tim Cook was asked about Nike’s FuelBand back in 2013, he said, “It’s for a specific area. [As for] the ones doing more than one thing … there’s nothing great out there that I’ve seen. It’s ripe for exploration.”

The future of wearables will be multifunctional.

Even before Apple announced its smartwatch, Cook was making Apple’s strategy clear: The future of wearables will be multifunctional. Like the iPhone, they need to run apps.

This makes a lot of sense. With separate bracelets and headsets for each and every function, you’d start looking like Olivia Newton John assimilated by the Borg.

Fitness app developers are closely looking at Apple’s WatchKit APIs. I know, because I’m one of them. We developed Reps & Sets for iPhone as a hobby project, and we’re busy extending it to Apple Watch (here’s our Kickstarter project).

Apple Watch might be grabbing most of the attention right now, but other wearables also compete for developers’ attention. Most notably the new Pebble Time, which differentiates itself from Apple Watch with a color e-paper screen that is always on and preserves battery life. Pebble already has some big fitness brands on board, including Endomondo, MapMyRun, RunKeeper and Jawbone.

Jawbone’s support is particularly notable given that the company offers its own Jawbone Up wearable. Perhaps they, too, see their potential future as a software-only service, running on third-party devices.

The drawback to Apple’s multifunctional strategy

There’s one major drawback to this multifunctional strategy, though: sensors.

Unlike other forms of software, wearable apps tend to require specific sensors, and there are only so many that Apple can squeeze into the size and price of a watch. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Apple considered including blood pressure and stress monitoring, but these sensors proved unreliable.

As an obsessive runner (I’ve clocked 11,600 miles on Nike+ to date), I think the Apple Watch’s most obvious omission is GPS. Sure, the wearable will be able to access your iPhone’s GPS via Bluetooth, but this means you’ll always have to take your iPhone with you on your run.

So while the technology inside Apple Watch is impressive, it doesn’t yet contain all the sensors required to replace every single-function device you might want or need. For the time being, other fitness wearables remain in the race.

However, they’ll need to be super-fit to keep up with Apple. The original iPod contained a chunky, spinning hard drive. The first-generation iPhone had slow GPRS data and a single 2-megapixel camera. Those devices didn’t stay that way for long. For the next generation of wearables, the race is just getting started.