Like many this holiday season, I received a Fitbit (Charge HR) as a gift. There's a lot of media obsessing on how the Fitbit app hit the number one spot on Apple's App store on December 25 and continues to ride high in the rankings. Some spin this as total doom for the Apple Watch, but I am not willing to join the bandwagon quite yet. The devices have different business models and I'm not sure how well Fitbit will fare over the long run.
Before I throw Fitbit under the bus for the long term, let me talk about all the good things the company did in order to rack up its current holiday success. First, it established itself as a solid brand and a "top of mind" presence through solid marketing and simplified product design. Last year at CES, every third tweet from some random tech guy was about how many $@*!@$ steps they had logged walking the show floor, most of them counted via their Fitbits.
You may have found, like I, that you couldn't go to three separate stories without one of them carrying the Fitbit line. If you want a win in the distribution channel world, hand the gold to Fitbit. I found them at Kohl's -- not exactly my first go-to for consumer electronics. Fitbit was in at least three different locations within Best Buy alone, including a simple large brown box stacked to the gills with Fitbits. The company saturated the field with product so if you were looking for a fitness wearable or an impulse stocking stuffer, you were going to trip over a Fitbit display.
If we are going to do an Apples vs. Oranges, er Fitbit comparison, keep in mind that the basic Apple Watch Sport starts at $549 on the Apple website while the entry-level, count-my-steps Fitbit is $99. The Charge HR with heart rate monitoring lists at $149, so for the price of one entry-level Apple watch, I can buy three mid-range Fitbit devices and have money left over for gift cards.
Of course, the Apple Watch does more. For those that desire and afford it, many bought Apple Watches within the first 30 minutes to 30 days of the Watch going on sale. More skeptical potential purchasers, like myself, see the first generation Apple Watch as a work in progress. Call me when it has longer battery life and a more acceptable price tag.
This holiday season goes to Fitbit, but what about the company's long-term prospects? Right now, Fitbit is at a high, but what do company sales look like three to four years from now? The cold truth is everyone who turned on a Fitbit on December 25 is unlikely to be wearing one a year from now. Like New Year's resolutions, the novelty of an activity tracker will wear off and people will go back to wearing Ye Olde Fashioned watches as they forget to recharge their devices. It's the same thing we've seen before with PDAs and other specialty devices -- everyone has to have one, then only the dedicated use them, finally followed by it replaced by something else.
We are still in early days with activity trackers, but CES 2016 will be flooded with them. Already companies are working on next-generation devices to incorporate non-intrusive blood pressure and blood oxygen monitoring, moving beyond the first generation step/motion counter and basic pulse monitoring. Samsung has announced a Bio-Processor that incorporates the ability to measure body fat, and skeletal muscle mass, heart rate, heart rhythm, skin temperature and stress level. (Yes, I know some of you that know me from my bad days in dot.com are laughing because I would have blown up the chip with my stress levels). The Bio-Processor is currently in mass production and will be available in (presumably Samsung) fitness/health devices in the first half of 2016. No word yet on what a finished device will cost.
For a serious athlete, fitness professional and/or primary care staff, a next generation wearable device offers a lot of usable data. Will Bio-Processor find its way into "normal" smart watches? It would have fight for device real estate and power, but more importantly you need to know how to properly interpret and use all the data being collected. I'm not sure where that line will be drawn and I don't think the health care industry is ready to deal with the issue until there's at least another generation or two of devices floating around.
Fitbit will have to thread its way through a maze of other activity trackers flooding the market, having the activity tracking function being melded into smart watches, and working through the issue of fitness wearables moving to a second generation of sensing devices incorporating enhanced functionality and requiring professional advice to properly interpret the collected data.
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