James Robinson writes in PandoDaily today about his fleeting love affair with fitness trackers. He notes that these one- or two- function bands are great at giving one a sense of quantified self, and perhaps some short-lived motivation, but not much more than that. In the long-run, they’re destined for the desk drawer, along with the point-and-shoot camera and standalone GPS. He observes:
A hypothetical smart watch that people actually want to buy in mass, one that could match an activity tracker’s function while performing some of the duties of the smartphone, would be perilous to these companies. It’s not hard to argue that activity trackers might soon end up as a technological relic of a pre-smart watch era.
Robinson gives voice to something I’ve felt – and I think many have felt – for a while. Fitness bands like the Jawbone, FitBit, or discontinued Nike FuelBand overwhelmingly feel like precursor devices – the technological calm before the wearable storm, the Palm Pilot before the iPhone. (In fact, even a smartwatch like the Pebble looks a little like a shrunken Palm Pilot – though it might just be that greyscale screen).
As an avid runner and technophile, I’ve found my cursor straying toward the “Buy Now” button on the FitBit Amazon page. But clearer heads – and the address confirmation page – prevail, and I inevitably realize that there’s no sense in purchasing a device I know – know – will be outdated by the time Hillary announces her candidacy.
Yet the race for control of the user’s wrist – and fitness tracking features – is nonetheless being gallantly fought by a few contenders – principally the aforementioned Jawbone, Fitbit, and Pebble. Nike’s FuelBand, another contender, unsnapped its clasps in April, as Swoosh Inc. shuttered the labs.
This raises an interesting question for fitness band makers: why stay in a business that Nike – whose pizza budget dwarfs the market cap of the other three – withdrew from? Does Nike CEO Mark Parker know something the other guys don’t? Consider Nike’s partnership with Apple’s upcoming Healthkit, which uses some of Nike’s proprietary metrics to fuel its fitness suggestions. The Nike-Apple partnership isn’t new – remember Nike+iPod? – but it is probably indicative of things to come. And Nike, which knew that it couldn’t dominate the space, likely felt that it was best to stay with the winning team, even if that meant transitioning out of hardware.
For the players left standing, it’s likely about maximizing the wrist space, and profits, before getting swallowed by Apple, Google, Facebook, or Amazon. If Fitbit or Jawbone wanted to retain their hold on the market, they would only stay committed to the idea of wearables, or quantified self, rather than the product itself. I think Tim Cook put it effectively, when he noted that Apple didn’t fear cannibalization of the Mac at the hands of the iPad, because “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”
But Jawbone and Fitbit know this, and have access to the same random assortment of hyperlinks that I do. And so their answer may simply be, “why not?” They have a lucrative lock on a growing market, and the iWatch remains merely a persistent spectre on Apple fanboy sites. If history tells us anything, it’s that when Cupertino wants us to see it, we’ll see it. And if you’re Fitbit and Jawbone, why would you try to reinvent a business in which you’re already #1? Would you really change products and strategies at a rumor of competition? It’s an open question.
They, like us, await a more clearly defined wearable future. And until that point, I’ll be biding my time, using my left hand to hold back my right from clicking that golden yellow “Add to Cart” button. And MapMyRun and a Swiss Army watch can tide me over for another few months, right?