Posted by Matt Egan 17 July 2014
Activity trackers, your regular tech Trojan horse
Smartwatches are coming. Don't take my word for it - look at your neighbour's wrist.
I've written before about why the smartwatch format makes sense. In short, smartphones offer us a wealth of information accessed through a single device, wherever we are. But in doing so they have reduced us all to the status of Victorian gentlemen, forced to pull out a pocket watch every time a passer by wants to know the time. With smartphones we can contact, learn, watch, listen and publish wherever we are, but we have to delve into our pockets to do so. A well-designed smartwatch, like the wristwatch from which the format derives, places in the most practicable place display via which we can access all that lovely info. (The full argument: Why smartwatches could be great: they're not pocket watches.)
But smartwatches are both expensive, and conspicuous. And also conspicuously expensive. It'll be a long time before people consider a £300 or £400 digital watch a must-have purchase, unless they want to be seen to carry the latest gadget.
Which is not to say that it won't happen, nor that it isn't happening now.
I was working in the US earlier this year, and couldn't help but notice how many people were wearing wrist-mounted gadgets. Not smartwatches, as such. Instead activity trackers. Quantifiable self fitness devices, designed to inspire and cajole the wearer into burning more calories. Even back in April they were present in the UK, but surprisingly popular in the US. (See also: best activity trackers of 2014.)
Fast forward to July in London and an interesting thing is happening. (See also: Activity trackers outrun smartwatches - shipments four times higher.)
Yesterday I was in a meeting. A long meeting. A meeting about web analytics, of all things. Don't worry I won't bore you with the details, beyond this: I was present to witness an argument about the best activity tracker. With 15 people in the room, seven of them were wearing Fitbits or Jawbones, or some other kind of fitness gadget. The lines were drawn pretty much evenly between the Fitbit and Jawbone camps, with me sitting on the fence. (Like the gadget fiend I am, I am currently sporting both the Fitbit One and the Jawbone UP24. So I am twice as fit as you are.)
It's possible my colleagues and I are exceptional. We work, after all, in tech media, and we are based in one of the most affluent and gadget-hungry cities in the world. But the key to all data analysis is to follow the trend. Half the people in that room now wear activity trackers. Few, if any, of them did so at the turn of the year.
I'd wager that health and fitness is the not the only factor here. Rather, a new type of gadget becomes a must-have or a strong-want the more you see other people carrying it. Earliest adopter begats confidence to the next rank of early adopters. Plus ca change.
What I find interesting is the effect this may have on smartwatch adoption. If we grow accustomed to people wearing dumb devices on their wrists - and most people I know wear activity trackers *and* a traditional timepiece - we will be more open to buying and wearing full smartwatches. And we should expect activity trackers to get smarter and reach up to high-end smartwatches, in the same way that Amazon stretched its Kindle ereaders to become low-end Kindle Fire tablets.
I'm not yet convinced that smartwatches will proliferate, but the way that activity trackers are increasing in popularity is making the future of smartwatches increasingly more secure. See also: The future of smartwatch apps.