It isn't tough to come up with arguments against entering the fitness wearable market in 2016. After all, any company that does so is a decided latecomer to a crowded market. The first Fitbit debuted more than seven years ago; Nike, which helped ramp up the category in 2012 with its FuelBand, has already backed out of it in favor of partnering with tech-savvy companies such as Apple.
Sportswear and accessory giant Under Armour doesn't seem fazed. At International CES in Las Vegas—the U.S.'s biggest gadget-fest—the company is announcing not just a fitness band but a whole platform centered around a bundle it's calling HealthBox: a band, a smart scale, and a heart-rate monitoring strap sold in one great big package and tied together by a new version of the company's Record smartphone app.
HealthBox retails for $400; the company will sell the components separately to the bundle-adverse, and is also unveiling some complementary products such as wireless headphones and SpeedForm Gemini 2 Record Equipped, a $150 pair of smart running shoes which can track your runs even if you aren't wearing the fitness band or toting a smartphone.
Under Armour refers to its target consumer—the same sort of consumers who have long bought its apparel and other gear—as athletes. Basically, these are folks who see engaging in sports as part of their identity, and who are naturally competitive—even in cases where the only ones they're competing with are themselves. The new products are designed to help such people up their game by letting them monitor their workouts, sleep, and eating habits.
"For the first 20 years [of Under Armour history] it's been about how athletes dress," says Robin Thurston, the company’s chief digital officer and a cofounder of MapMyFitness, which it bought in 2013. "Now we want to have this discussion about how athletes live."
The devices that make up HealthBox, he adds, are "a system. We didn't want to just launch a single component. All the things in the box are critical to letting you achieve your goals."
Under Armour may only now be getting into gadgets, but it's been assembling the necessary components for a while. On the software side, the platform draws on technology and expertise from three startups it acquired for a total of more than $700 million: Thurston's MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal, and Endomondo. Even after all that splurging, the company isn’t embarking on this new foray on its own. Instead, it's collaborating with smartphone maker HTC on the HealthBox gadgets, including the UA Band wearable, which evolved out of the Grip, a band which HTC announced last March but never shipped in its original form. JBL, a division of audio behemoth Harman, is similarly working with Under Armour on the $180 wireless headset and an upcoming $250 headset with a built-in heart-rate monitor.
Considering how dependent all this gear and its software are on disparate pieces and partnerships, the end result is surprisingly coherent. I spent some time with HealthBox, the Gemini 2 RE shoes, the JBL headset, and the Record app, and they felt like a matched set, especially from an industrial design standpoint. Rather than going the Fitbit route of selling the same gizmo in a variety of styles, Under Armour is betting everything on a single aesthetic: black, complemented by red which shows up in places such as the inside of the band and the underside of the scale. The consistency of sensibility is also reflected in touches such as the fact that the scale is round, with a surface divvied up into quadrants. That evokes the user interface of the Record app, which is split into pie slices for Activity, Fitness, Nutrition, and Sleep.
The UA Band, which sells for $180 in à la carte form, looks to be a competent competitor to fitness wearables such as the Fitbit Charge HR, with a slim design and a one-button interface. (Everything other than turning on the screen is done with taps and swipes.) It can measure your resting heart rate—the separate heart-rate monitor is designed for use during workouts—and accurately counted how many hours I slumbered without me having to remember to put it into sleep mode. I did find the strap a bit tricky to fasten, a weirdly common issue with wearables. And charging the band would be closer to foolproof if it snapped to its USB cable with more force; the magnetic bond is surprisingly wimpy.
The beta version of the Record app which I tried provides typical features such as the ability to track steps, log workout sessions, and graph how much shut-eye you've been getting, plus the ability to answer the open-ended question "How Do You Feel?" on a 1-10 scale. You can also add friends who are also Record users and participate in challenges such as seeing who can do the most workouts.
At least in its current form, though, Record lacks the richness of apps such those from Fitbit and Jawbone, such as the ability to enter detailed information on meals you've eaten. (Instead, you can simply classify your calorie intake as "Light," "Medium," or "Heavy.") Nor does this pre-release version do much to analyze all that data it's collecting, or tell you what you should do with it.
As articulated by Thurston, Under Armour's aspirations for the app are wildly ambitious: "We see a world where Record is a de facto app that's on everyone's phone," he says, explaining that the company wants to do for fitness what Mint has done for personal finance. That presumably means that the app will get meatier over time. But the company doesn't want to stuff in every conceivable feature. In fact, it plans to continue on with the MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal, and Endomondo apps, all of which do things which Record does not.
For instance, MyFitnessPal is dedicated to healthy eating and weight loss, offering the deep nutrition-related functionality which Record lacks. Thurston likens this approach to Facebook’s strategy of offering multiple apps—Facebook itself, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp—with missions, capabilities, and target audiences which dovetail, but remain distinct.
Nor does Under Armour plan to remove Record's extensive support for devices from other manufacturers, including the Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and wearables from TomTom, Garmin, and others. "The goal of this is to push the hardware forward," says Thurston of Under Armour's own new gadgets. "We're trying to showcase what the best possible integration looks like."
By releasing so many products in 2016 and teaming with HTC and JBL, Under Armour is honoring a favorite mantra of its founder, Kevin Plank: "Big bets with big partners." But does the company have a shot at succeeding where Nike tried, then gave up? According to Thurston, Under Armour isn't too late to the game—the FuelBand was too early. "If you look at where the technology was at that time, it's come a long way," he says. "We think the timing is right."