Smart wristbands and smartwatches are merging
Posting earlier this week on the rumors swirling around an Apple iWatch led to an “aha” moment, the realization that wearable technology smartwatches and “smart” wristbands like the Fitbit Flex and Nike+ Fuelband are actually on a high-speed collision course. New functionality has already arrived in some of the newest crop of smart wristbands, like the LG LifeBand and Fitbit Force, which both add an altimeter.
And on the watch side, many of the speculative stories about the Apple iWatch point to a more bracelet-like design than the current crop of devices like the Galaxy Gear, therefore helping further close the gap towards convergence.
Smart wristbands reached the halfway house in a single generation, which points to the possibility that by Christmas 2014, the categories will have started to merge. Back in late 2012, the relaunched Jawbone UP had only a rudimentary, single LED that could show different colors or blink.
Early in 2013, Fitbit pushed the envelope with the Flex, offering five LEDs that can give a coded indication of steps counted, or whether the device is entering or exiting sleep mode. Then a few months later in 2013 came the first smart wristbands with OLED displays (using organic light-emitting diodes) such as the Fitbit Force, which can display either single or multi-color pixel-based read-outs, showing the time, the number of steps counted by the device, etc…
After OLEDs, what’s next?
It seems logical that the next generation of high-end wristbands will feature mini LED or improved OLED displays – and then, what’s really the difference between a smartband and a smartwatch? Especially when next generation smartwatches become thinner and lighter: If they also become more curvy and bracelet-like, then what does the future look like for stand-alone smartband manufacturers?
One answer for aspiring wristband producers is to focus on the low end: right now Fitbug is carving out a niche in the sub-$90 category with its smart band that also clips on to a belt. It’s a button-shaped device that’s a bit bigger and clunkier than other wristbands – in fact, wearing one is like sporting a G-Shock sports watch – but it’s also cheaper than the Fitbit Flex (having said that, we’ve seen eBay pro sellers offering new Fitbit Flex devices for as low as US $85 excluding shipping).
As the worlds of smartwatches and smart wristbands collide, so the eco-system around these devices is going to be increasingly important. The quality of the phone- or PC-based app, and seamless integration will come more to the fore. Today, some smartband manufacturers are still dithering in launching Android apps (take a bow, Polar: the Loop is currently still iPhone only). Again it’s Fitbug that is innovating in this space, by offering a free 12-month subscription to users’ basic biometrics dashboard, which others are currently bundling free. It cannot be too long before annual renewal becomes the norm – since today no smartband manufacturer is promising users lifetime free access to their stats.
That begs another question for the wearable technology industry to grapple with: Should I have to pay to liberate my data?