Wearable Tech

Fitness: The Sweet Spot for Smartwatches

Smartwatches outsoldtraditional watches in the fourth quarter of 2018. The categorysaw a 51 percent increase in dollar sales for last year, along with a61 percent increase in unit sales, according to recent data from NPD Group. One in four Americans aged 18 to 34 now own asmartwatch, and that is likely to increase.

Traditional watches did regain the majority of the market in Q12019, suggesting that not all consumers are ready to have amini-computer on their wrists just yet, but devices that do more than tell the time are capturing a greater segment of the market, and that isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon.

Global sales of smartwatches will increasefrom 51.3 million units last year to 91.8 million this year, reachingas high as 131.6 million in 2023, IDC has forecast. That is lot of mini-computers on thewrists of consumers in years to come.

Apple, Rolex, Fitbit, Patek Philippe and Samsung are now the top fivesmartwatch brands, according to NPD Group, signifying that a mix offeatures and fashion are the key drivers in the wearables category.

Apple has maintained the largest share of the smartwatch market, but Samsung isnow the fastest growing brand, while companies such as Fitbit andGarmin are holding steady, according to a report from research firm Canalys.

Fitness functionality is crucial to many consumers, which is why we soon could see more athletic apparel companies enter the market.

Sporting goods companyPuma earlier this year announced a partnership with the Fossil Group to bring out a lineof wearables designed with active individuals in mind. Powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset and running on Google’s Wear OS, these devices are designed to help athletes train and track goals, while still taking design cues from a traditional watchmaker.

Form Over Function

Despite the fact that fitness functionality is a keyfeature in smartwatches, a lot of emphasis increasingly is directed toward design elements.

“The wearables market is about form factor, not specific devicefunction,” said Steve Blum, principal analyst at TellusVenture Associates.

“That’s true whether it is smartwatches, fitness trackers, sleepmonitors or something else,” he told TechNewsWorld.

What is notable is that the market has seen a convergence of fitnessdevices and wearable computers that do much more than track heart rateor steps taken. They have greater connectivity with smartphones, which also have evolved from simple communication devices to a go-anywhere personal computers.

“Smartphones are networked handheld computers that are a convenientparking spot for any app, sensor or content that you can imagine,”noted Blum. “It’s an accident of history that we call them ‘phones,’ and similarly,what we’ll end up calling a ‘smartwatch’ will just be a wrist-mountedplatform for whatever can conveniently ride on it.”

The Downsizing Trend

Smartwatches align with atrend that began more than three decades ago with personal computers.The first “personal computer,” or “PC,” was personal inthat it stood on one’s desk. The early “portable computers” were thesize of small suitcases — or at best a large (and heavy) briefcase.

PCs eventually became laptops, which led to thedevelopment of smaller devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

“Since the mainframe became a mini became a desktop became a notebookbecame a phone, the next step is obviously a wearable, which is bydefinition small and comfortable,” suggested Roger L. Kay, principalanalyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“It was always the case that computers would keep getting smaller, andfull-function machines are limited in size theoretically only by inputand output methods,” he told TechNewsWorld.

If a big screen is required for the computer, it simply can’t get anysmaller. The same holds true when a keyboard is required, addedKay, “but if output is small semasiographs of a known thing — a small redpulsating heart that even a person with limited vision can distinguishfrom some other icon — or output is sound, the form factor can get muchsmaller,” Kay explained.

The same holds true when voice input is an option. Reduction in the size of sensors has allowed computers to become wearable, as they can pick up signals from the wearer.

“Thus, the primary function may be to monitor these input levels forchanges and report out,” said Kay. “That sounds like a fitnesstracker.”

End of the Fitness Tracker

The convergence of technology could come at a cost — and not just reflected on price tags. Those who want a dedicated fitness device could be left with fewer options.

“I’m seeing fewer and fewer Fitbits and other dedicated fitnesswearables on people, and more and more Apple Watches, and those areoften used for step counting and other fitness-tracking purposes,”said Blum.

In fact, 76 percent of respondents to a recent Parks Associates survey used their smartwatch to track steps. Sixty percent used them as a heart rate monitor, and 53 percent to trackcalories. Overall, 41 percent of smartwatch owners reported that themost commonly used apps were to track calories or to monitor weight loss goals.

“While fitness is a major feature of smartwatches, we need toevaluate them on a case-by-case basis,” said Julie Sylvester,coproducer of Living in Digital Times.

“Fitness devices in general are moving towards more general health-based wearables,” she told TechNewsWorld. “While most wrist-based devices have a timefeature, smartwatches play a broader role, and lumping them togetherignores these features and dilutes the role of the more specializedwrist-based fitness trackers used in health and stress monitoring.”

Watches will continue to be multi-use devices simply because of howthey are worn, and a portion of the workload always will includefitness tracking.

A watch “can be seen, felt and heard easily, consulted from variousdistances, and operated with the free hand,” noted Kay.

“A necklace, for example, would be hard to see, but could be heard andfelt easily enough. Much of the utility converges on the watch, whichis really only a ‘watch’ in name,” he pointed out.

“It keeps time, but it’s more of a DickTracy-type thing you whisper into and look at,” Kay remarked. “Watches subsume fitness-tracking as an app withspecialized hardware, and fitness trackers try to do more and become’watch’-like.”

Addressing Shortcomings

Even as a wearable computer, the smartwatch has a majordrawback — one that has plagued other personal or portable computers.

“Batteries are the major limiting factor inhibiting the collapse ofeverything into a single smartwatch,” Blum said. “There are two problems: battery life and recharging. So far Ihaven’t found a smartwatch that can operate with everything running,including GPS, for more than about eight hours straight.”

That can be inconvenient for users who just want to putit on in the morning and let it do its thing all day long.

“It’s a deal killer for people who need that level of functionalityfor long durations — cyclists, hikers, triathletes, for example,” notedBlum.

“Recharging requires users to take the watch off once or twice a dayand leave it somewhere to charge,” he said. “That can limit itsusefulness as a sleep monitor, for example. It is also a lot morefussy than we’re used to being about our watches.”

As younger users are enticed by the form factor, thesmartwatch/wearable category is going to have to solve the batteryissue. Phones can be plugged in while a user issitting at a desk, but that isn’t the best solution for a wearable device.

“If someone can figure out a system for wirelessly recharging smartwatches with ambient energy, it’ll be a game changer,” said Blum.

“At that point, it won’t be just fitness trackers that collapse intosmartwatches, but also many smartphone functions as well,” he predicted, with”maybe a low-level magnetic field on keyboards, steering wheels,handlebars, or anything else that’s regularly near your wrist for morethan a few minutes a day.”

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.Email Peter.

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