After showing off his Nike FuelBand, Apple CEO Tim Cook, mentioned at the All Things D conference that wearable sensors were a profoundly interesting technology, saying the space was "ripe for exploration." Now, just a few months later rumors of Apple's own iWatch are heating up with news of trademark filings being uncovered in several different countries. It would appear the two are undeniably connected, and while we still might not see an official iWatch for a while, a wristwatch could be Apple's latest entrance into the fitness market, following 2006’s Nike+ iPod announcement. But is the fitness/activity tracking market the fruitful evergreen category many think it is?
Looking at the current activity trackers, it’s hard not to compare the fitness devices to netbook computers. The two product categories seem to parallel each other in marketshare trends and durability of demand.
Netbooks saw tremendous growth and excitement several years ago, only to come crashing back down as normal notebooks and tablets dropped in price and increased in compute power. The netbook, as a computer, was obvious and attractive to consumers, but it didn't live up to their hopes and expectations. It was a stopgap.
Similarly, the current generation of fitness products appeals to a lot of people and their good intentions—but is the demand really big enough for Apple to consider building something? Judging by Google Trends, not nearly. Check out this comparison chart:
Products like Fitbit, UP from Jawbone, and Nike's FuelBand all attempting similar things to assist a user's journey towards a healthier life by providing technical information like steps taken, sleeping patterns, and calories burned. As interesting as those stats are, tracking that basic info can't seriously be a market that interests Apple.
There has to be something else: Something that moves beyond what sensors are detecting today and appeals to the 15-year-old boy as much as the 35-year-old woman. Apple is a mass-market company with the most accessible technology products on the market. Surely, if Cook intends his company to experiment here, he’s seeing some potential that the rest of the market doesn’t.
It’s hard to tell whether the vast majority of people use Fitbit or UP for sustained periods. What I do know from personal experience, and others' anecdotal evidence, is that managing a device tracking my activities is not what I want. I don’t want little bits of semi-useful data piling up with no bigger picture plan for its existence. I want there to be practical use for such a device that my life won’t have to revolve around.
In other words, there has to be an extremely compelling use case for the data this device collects, or consumers won’t go through the trouble of wearing it (and charging it). This can’t just be a glorified pedometer, or watch that just delivers push notifications. This has to be MacBook Air-level sexy.
If it is, Apple will be collecting data on your every movement, and feeding that data back into its ecosystem. What could iOS developers do with a movement API that collects such comprehensive data? How could Cupertino make use of your location patterns to make its devices smarter, less resource intensive, or less socially intrusive? HTC is one company that has experimented with location-aware functionality; some HTC phones change the home screen when they connect to a Wi-Fi network recognized as (say) your home or work. Should Apple pursue the same avenue, you can bet it will utterly disrupt the way we think about "smart" devices. In fluorescent California colors, no less.
[Image: Flickr user Aaron Muszalski]