Apple watch and activity trackers’ day of reckoning

Jonathan Palley, Co-founder and CEO, Spire

Activity trackers died and were reborn on Tuesday. With the Apple Watch as well as Jawbone’s announcement that its apps will work with anyone’s hardware (which follows a similar announcement from Misfit), wearable activity tracking is no longer a product—its a feature.

What’s a wearable activity tracking company to do?

Jawbone and Misfit’s answer has been: platform! Wearable-donned people can use their app anywhere while the companies bring all of the user data onto their server. History is not on their side. All the great platforms in technology—from Windows, to iOS to Facebook and even to Google’s ad network—started out with a core technology/business that no one else could replicate. Then came the platform. While we can argue over which activity tracking app is best, the difference and the technology is minimal.

The only player who isn’t jumping so strongly on the platform bandwagon is Fitbit. And the reason, I believe, is simple: while Silicon Valley views Fitbit as a wearable activity tracker, my mom sees Fitbit as a brand that helps her and her friends get fit and lose weight together. It’s not a technology product.

The dirty little secret of activity trackers is that the technology was always a commodity to begin with. At the core of an activity tracker is an accelerometer—a relatively old technology which first found widespread uses in car airbags and later in smart phones—that costs less then $0.50.

Thus, despite all the talk we hear about “big data”, platforms, APIs, and integrations, the reality is that anyone who really tries to build novel experiences on top of these accelerometer based devices runs into a big wall: the data is just too limited.

So does this mean wearables are dead? Absolutely not. We are just at the beginning. Open up your Anatomy 101 textbook. Activity is a tiny fraction of our health and our body. We are finally moving past this signal and forcing the industry to explore the rest of the human body with new sensors, new deep technology and new experiences.