Fitbit vs. the Apple Watch

Following on from my own reflections on a year of wearing the Apple Watch, I was interested to read Brian X. Chen's Fitbit piece in the NYT. I've wondered myself why—despite being fascinated by the whole activity-tracking thing—I'd not succumbed to the charms of Fitbit long before Apple Watch shipped.

I think this is relevant:

Yet the fact that Fitbit’s products focus on one thing — tracking your fitness — is not helping the company’s image in this era of Swiss Army knife devices, where products like the iPhone and Apple Watch can do multiple things. History has been unkind to single-purpose gadgets, many of which have flopped, like Cisco’s Flip camcorder, or have struggled, like the action camera from GoPro.

I've long been an admirer of single-purpose gadgets which, when done properly, can wipe the floor with poorly conceived all-in-ones. The iPod for example made perfect sense, a near-seamless blend of hardware and software optimised entirely around playing digital music. By comparison the original Mac—for all its pretences to the status of an appliance—was a Teasmade, or a toaster-oven-fridge.

Fitbit purposely took the opposite approach from Apple Watch, he added. The strategy was to begin with simple devices, to make wearables more approachable, and carefully layer on more features over time. In contrast, the Apple Watch started out doing a bit of everything: showing notifications, tracking fitness statistics and making phone calls.

“We look at it from a consumer point of view,” Mr. Park said. Apple Watch “is a computing platform, but that’s really the wrong way to approach this category from the very beginning.”

Part of Fitbit's problem though is that the very notion of an appliance has morphed into that of an app. Tomorrow's computing platforms aren't like the stratified PC with its layers of software and hardware, they're even more opaque than the original Mac, and nearly as seamless as the iPod. When we're using a well-designed app the whole device feels like a tool designed for that single purpose. It might be an illusion, but it's a mostly convincing one.

In this light the iPhone isn't a computing platform at all but a context (on-the-move and one-handed). Apple Watch is a different context, but its functionality is similarly fluid. At its best Apple Watch is only what you need it to be when you need it: A fitness monitor when I'm exercising, a communicator when I get a message, a remote control for iTunes when I'm commuting, a timepiece when I need to know the time, and a fashion accessory when I'm not doing anything else. The context in which it does these things is remarkably consistent: I'm involved in some other activity and my iPhone needs to stay in my pocket.

Of course the other problem for Fitbit is this:

In addition, many people may end up leaving their Fitbit devices in a drawer. Of those who bought a Fitbit device in 2015, 28 percent stopped using it by the end of the year, according to the company.

Just as the best camera is the one you have with you, the best fitness tracker is the one you're wearing. Apple provided plenty of reasons to keep the Apple Watch on your wrist, and it's not done yet. That's what drives the regular updates to the watch bands, and it's what will drive the ongoing updates to watchOS too.