I’m not really sure I expected the fitness tracker craze to catch on. Most of the devices on the market right now are either brutally ugly, not terribly useful or just plain poorly made. We seem to be on the verge of some kind of revolution here, but so far the offerings have been a little less than inspiring.
The question of what it takes to build a desirable fitness tracker will, I expect, continue to stymy consumer electronics manufacturers for quite some time— long after the debut of the Apple Watch, which itself lives in a strange place in the ever-changing technological zeitgeist.
When everything is smart, nothing is
Speaking of which: I’m even less sure of the place “smartwatches” might have in our daily lives than I am about the appeal of fitness trackers. The Apple Watch certainly has some exciting fitness-focused tech on board, but its price tag (in my opinion) is more than a little off-putting — especially, I’d say, when you consider the fact that not only does it require the presence of a smartphone to perform even its most basic functions, but it also appears to do a less-useful version of everything your phone already does.
Worse? It’s strapped to your wrist. When I want to make myself unavailable, I can put my phone on airplane mode and leave it in the other room. And while I’m sure the Apple Watch will provide some kind of privacy feature when it finally sees the light of day, I don’t really relish the thought of having too-easy access to texts, emails and status updates directly on my wrist. It’s a new kind of all-consuming distraction that nobody really asked for but is taking the tech world by storm regardless.
Building a better wearable
But fitness trackers? I’m starting to see the appeal there. The best trackers are the ones that serve a specific function — not the ones that happened to add in fitness tracking features to the veritable kitchen sink that is the smartwatch scene. Fitbit is still the market leader, thanks to ubiquity, if not actual innovation; but up-and-comers like Withings and Jawbone have also made a strong impression in the fitness tracker world with their Activité and UP series, respectively.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the emerging trend in wearable technology is going to shift toward devices that do just a couple of things really well rather than big, expensive devices that do 1,000 different things moderately well. Battery life is one reason for this, and price is another.
But the most important reason is built-in obsolescence.
See you again next year
Let’s face it: the Apple Watch, at $349 (that’s just for the entry-level model), is far from an impulse purchase. It’s almost twice what you’d pay for a top-of-the-line smartphone, and I just don’t think that’s a sustainable business model. While many of us have become comfortable— for better or worse — with annual upgrade cycles for our smartphones, the thought of adding another device into that pattern — with yearly design iterations — is not an attractive one. Lots of people are already wondering about the Apple Watch Mark II, and dreading the moment when the original is lost to obsolescence. I expect it will happen more quickly than any of us are prepared for.
Because the fact is this: the consumer electronics industry is moving faster now than it ever has. Just when we’ve gotten a handle on a technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along come new standards (near-field communication, for example) that look to turn everything on its ear again. When many Americans don’t even have access to what could reasonably be called “broadband Internet,” we’re already worrying about how to use the Internet of Things to connect our bathroom scales, our light bulbs and our garage doors, all in the name of “convenience.”
Furthermore, we’re told that the hub of all of this connected tech will live on our wrists — or, in Google’s case, on our heads.
Is that really where our priorities are? It seems that we could be doing so much more to further the cause of actual, useful wearable tech freed from the flash and gimmickry. And this is to say nothing of the ever-worsening cybersecurity threats that have taken a worldwide stage recently. What happens when someone infects your connected home with a virus?
A call for simple living
If there’s a point in here somewhere, it’s that there’s an incredibly untapped market for simpler (that is, less “smart”) devices that do one or two key tasks really well. Frankly, most of us just don’t need a wristwatch that can dim the lights in our homes from the next town over.
Is nobody else bothered by the fact that one of the marquee features of the smartwatch is that we no longer need to take our phone out of our pocket as often as we used to?
So what’s the alternative? For starters, how about devices that aren’t quite so smart? Withings’ Activité (and the cheaper Activité Pop) is one example: it’s an analog watch that also happens to track your walking, running, swimming and sleep. Jawbone also makes some excellent fitness trackers (like the forthcoming UP3) that don’t have screens, text notifications or any other kind of distraction. Just pure fitness and health tracking.
If Apple is smart, and I think they are, they may learn very quickly that people don’t want just another “smart” device strapped to their wrists; we’ve got enough Internet in our lives already, thanks. What we need are personal devices that cater to very specific needs in our lives and help us solve simple problems.
Because right now, what we’re getting is just too smart for our own good.
Daniel Faris is an independent journalist, blogger and ghostwriter whose work has been published in Forbes and The London School of Economics. Visit his blog, The Byte Beat, for a look at emerging tech trends or join him at Only Slightly Biased for political commentary. Follow him on Twitter.