Narrative: Wearables are Struggling
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Narrative: Wearables Are Struggling (Dec 27, 2016)
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★ Apple Announces Upgraded Watch and TV Devices (Sep 12, 2017)
Fitbit has finally announced its second smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic, following the launch of the Fitbit Blaze in May last year. At the time, Fitbit described the Blaze as a “smart fitness watch” but it seems to want everyone to forget that designation now as it launches the Ionic and wants to frame it as its first entry in this space. To be sure, when it launches, this device will have an app store, something the Blaze didn’t have, but it’s far from certain that there will be anything meaningful in it. One reason Fitbit is pre-announcing the device two months ahead of launch is to get developers going, while the other is surely to get out ahead of Apple’s third set of Watch hardware, which will be announced in a couple of weeks. Based on what we know so far, the Ionic looks very similar on paper to the Apple Watch in several respects: it has GPS, contactless payments, it’s swim proof, stores and plays music, provides personalized fitness coaching, and so on.
But on paper is about the only place it does look like the Apple Watch – the Ionic is very much in the design tradition of Fitbit’s other devices: angular and industrial looking, with garish colors an optional extra. It hasn’t published the dimensions of the device, but at least a couple of shots in its promotional video make it look enormous, especially for wearing in bed. That’s important, because multi-day battery life and eventual ability to track sleep apnea are among the very few differentiators here against the Apple Watch, and if it’s uncomfortable to wear at night, none of that really matters.
We’ll have to wait and see all the details in October, but based on what we’re seeing today, my guess is that the Fitbit Ionic will sell maybe a couple of million units, or roughly ten percent of Fitbit’s annual device sales, over the first year, maybe slightly more if the third party app ecosystem is stronger than I’m expecting. At those numbers, it’ll barely make a dent in the overall smartwatch market, which is dominated by Apple, with Samsung in second place and other Android devices in third, though it might provide a boost to Fitbit’s ASP, which is currently around a hundred dollars. I would guess it’ll mostly appeal to existing Fitbit users who admire its aesthetic, and will likely do better among Android users who have relatively few other compelling options than among iPhone owners. Fitbit today also announced wireless sports headphones called Flyer, which will retail for $130 and be available online right away: these are a sign that Fitbit recognizes its lack of an ecosystem is going to be an increasingly big challenge going forward given its lack of integration with either Android or iOS, and it therefore needs to build its own.
CNBC reports that Apple has recently held discussions with insurance company Aetna about providing Apple Watches on a subsidized basis to at least some of its 23 million customers. Aetna already has a program to provide Apple Watches to its employees, and both Apple and Fitbit have been talking to a variety of healthcare companies about partnerships to get wider distribution of their devices. This is the first real sign that Apple might do a deal which would be much larger in scale than anything that’s been contemplated so far. For context, Apple has likely sold just over 30 million Watches in total so far, so getting Watches to even half of Aetna’s members would be a massive boost to the business. Such a deal would likely see Apple supplying Watches at less than the usual retail price, both as a bulk discount and because the cost of acquisition would be much lower than a typical retail purchase, while Aetna would subsidize the remaining cost for its members on the basis that fitness trackers tend to improve health and fitness and therefore lower the odds of a medial issue that requires insurance coverage. The rationale there would be much the same as for insurers providing discounted gym memberships. Partnerships like this with medical providers probably have more potential than anything else to boost the addressable market for fitness-centric wearables, including the Apple Watch, because they substantially lower the cost of entry for consumers while providing strong incentives to make use of the devices. There’s obviously no guarantee any of this gets done, but it’s the kind of thing I’m sure we’ll see at least on a small scale in the near future, whether with Aetna and Apple or other pairings.