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If all of the companies that make activity-trackers were on some sort of leaderboard right now, who would be winning the race?

None of them.

The news yesterday that Nike had laid off members of its FuelBand division, and may not release future versions of the device, underscores the challenges players in this space have faced — and will face. Companies large and small are grappling with ways to cram a variety of sensors, batteries and other components into a device that offers enough value to not be tossed into a drawer after a month.

Jawbone’s first Up wristband malfunctioned, resulting in a company apology and a no-questions-asked return policy. Fitbit recalled its rash-inducing Force wristband in February.

Lark, which started out as a maker of activity-and-sleep-tracking wristbands, just introduced a personalized coaching app that runs on Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 smartphone. But Lark no longer makes Larklife, its clunker of an activity-tracking band, having discontinued it not long after it launched in December 2012.

“We decided to become a software company deeply tied into the sensors on smartphones,” said Julia Hu, Lark’s founder. “Hardware is very hard. There are global supply chain and manufacturing issues at play, which are largely out of your control, and it’s capital-intensive.”

And it is getting harder, not easier, for wearable makers, because they are getting serious competition. Smartphones can increasingly pull off much of the functionality of wristbands, migrating those features into consumers’ pockets and driving down demand for stand-alone products.

Notably, Apple’s iPhone 5s includes the M7 coprocessor that enables motion sensing, which a series of app developers have already taken advantage of.

“The activity tracker market is pretty well commoditized by phones and the software apps,” said Malay Gandhi, chief strategy officer at the Rock Health accelerator and investment fund. “We already have tracking devices that most of us carry around with us all the time, so investing a ton into hardware when there’s already a platform,” often makes little sense.

Sonny Vu, the creator of the jewelry-like Misfit Shine, concurs — even though he’s in the business of selling activity trackers. “Much like MP3 players and GPS devices, which are single-purpose hardware devices, trackers are basically going to get subsumed or conflated into multipurpose hardware, like the iPhone,” he said.

To be sure, there are limitations with smartphones as health trackers.

Unlike certain water-resistant wearables, you can’t use phones to measure the distance you swim. You also can’t continuously monitor your pulse, as you can with a wristband.

So it’s very possible there will be niche markets for dedicated health trackers — say, for serious athletes and people with particular medical conditions — but it’s not at all clear how big those markets will be, Gandhi said.

The dirty secret of wearables

Perhaps the biggest challenge for stand-alone wearables remains proving their long-term value to consumers.

They’re certainly not mainstream yet. Some reports peg their usage at five percent of Americans, while others suggest an optimistic 15 percent.

An online survey by Endeavour Partners last fall found that one in 10 of those above the age of 18 own an activity tracker. But the longer someone owns a tracker, the less he or she uses it. The research firm found that more than half of those consumers no longer use the devices — with a third dropping off within the first six months of ownership.



The science of sustained use involves a jumble of factors, including design, comfort, ease of use, lifestyle compatibility and overall utility. A single issue can halt usage, including limited battery life, a difficult set-up process, a clunky sync experience –or, obviously, a rash.

Fitbit learned this only too well with the Force, which it was forced to recall five months after it hit the market, when nearly 10,000 customers complained of skin irritations. It prompted at least one lawsuit, on top of what is surely an expensive recall effort.

Psychology comes into play as well. There’s a giant body of research into what really motivates humans and how they form new habits — much of which is not the domain of developers and engineers. Merely feeding people activity information doesn’t cut it.

Misfit’s Vu points out that, while watches are an old category, wearable electronics are relatively new — as are the teams behind them. “There’s no team with, say, 20 years of experience making wearable technology right now. So everyone, including us, is still learning.”


“There’s no team with, say, 20 years of experience making wearable technology right now."

Yes, there is: Polar Electro (from Finland) has been making heart rate monitors since 1987 (at least; that's when I got the first Polar Sport Tester).
Polar now offers a large line of exercise+activity trackers (including the recent Polar Loop).

People need to stop believing that if they don't know something, it must not exist ;-) .


Thank you for this article.   Finally, an article that mentions the need for the wearable sensors/device companies to address the "Psychology" of the end user.  When I view the popularity of fitness trackers like Fitbits, Nike Fuel, Adidas Micoach, Up, etc., I smile.  ALL of the past and recent research specifically states that the average use of these bands, watches, devices, trackers end up in the desk drawer after 6-9 months....including functionally associated health/fitness Apps. While these devices/trackers are key to individuals for gathering insight from data....they do not provide the "incentive" which is sorely required to maintain a successful and sustainable use.  I believe that the tracker is simply an enabler, with the major success factor being the software platform that sits behind the tracker which allows the quantification of users data and aids in an  sustainable/incentivized engagement.  Having accomplished a clinical trial and corporate pilots, we found that we had actually inadvertently validated Rand's Research: Workplace Wellness Programs Study, Final Report, 2013.  We found incentivized engagement was relatively easy (40%) but dropped to single digits after the first year.  We now believe that our actual goal is delivering  "sustained engagement" through behavior modification and lifestyle management that transcends from "extrinsic" to "intrinsic" motivation.  An extremely difficult and challenging quest.  Yet. we must continue to push innovation to the next level of not only creating new devices and carrying solutions,  but incorporating cognitive science in order to have a sustainable use case and hopefully, help contain the growing health care costs.


I like my Fitbit and the ability to challenge my friends to stay on the "leaderboard".  I do wish it was slightly thinner -- more watchlike.  In fact, a nice watch with the technology embedded in it would be perfect.  Perhaps like the old Swatch where you could change out the faceplates...


As Cook has observed interesting space, but no clear reason to make wearables a got to wear. Technology is one issue, the bigger one is what job needs to be done? After all the blogger, analyst , and Google/Samsung hype for wearables, everyone is waiting for Apple to define the market to copy.


 Wearable are mostly useless. On my phone, I value the screen above all. Wearables have mostly no screen, and the use case for something w/o a screen is very limited. Fitness (5% of the pop ?) Health (10% ?), authentification (hey, I'd wear a watch that would let me never to have to sign in anywhere, ever, but then I'm a nerd so... 10% too ?)... 

Angus Matheson
Angus Matheson

Yes, wearables are hard. And everyone now is failing, but I think everyone is missing what is going on. John Gruber of daring fireball points out that Cook sits on Nike's board. Apple and whatever it is planning (having hired the man who designed the fuel band Jay Blahnik) is going compete with the Fuelband, so Nike is getting out of the way. mp3 and smart phones sucked until the iPod came out. Someone is going to figure out wearables and afterword it will be so obvious. It looks like Nike thinks that time is coming. Maybe they know something..,,

Bob Lehar
Bob Lehar

The screen is certainly a high value part. With the iPhone, Apple identified the fixed keyboard as the the low value part and replaced it with an enlarged screen. If they follow the same template for wearables, they can replace the low value attachable band with an enlarged flexible display doubling as a band. Apple hint at this themselves in their wearables patent. The implications for fashion customization through software, apps and contents always in the user's sight would be intriguing.

As to health and fitness, it might be the current wearbles fail as they don't allow their users to properly interpret the collected data. I believe if a device measures more body functions (eg sleep) and you can observe an improvement in one area thanks to eg more workout, this can bring a genuine reward for the user who is consequently motivated to keep using the device.


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