Wednesday, 30 August 2017 15:41

Kantar confers kudos on Ionic Fitbit, says death of wearables exaggerated

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The iconic Ionic, Fitbit’s new smartwatch, is the company’s play and foray into conquering the smartwatch world, as it has done with wearables in general – can it step up?

Step counters were once the holy grail of fitness tracking, but this was soon eclipsed by Fitbit’s intelligent little fitness trackers, adding ever more workout types and going well beyond the initial and original step counting numeracy.

However, as Android Wear and Apple Watch smartwatches did everything fitness trackers could do, and a damn sight more, it was clearly time, so to speak, for Fitbit to move to the different smartwatch beat, which the company has now done with its non-ironic Ionic.

Into this mix comes the respected and learned Dominic Sunnebo, global insight director at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, with his view on who’s who in the wearables zoo, and he starts off by proclaiming that “reports of the death of wearables, a segment comprised of both smartwatches and activity trackers, has been somewhat exaggerated this year".

You see, explains Sunnebo, “despite a lacklustre track record of growth, demand for wearables continues to exhibit modest growth. Nearly 20% of US consumers over the age of 16 now own an activity tracker or smartwatch – up from just 15% a year ago, according to current research from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech".

Presumably preferring the sunny side of life, Sunnebo notes that, contrary to gloomy forecasts for some vendors resulting in part from the Apple Watch attracting much of the attention and enthusiasm, “activity trackers continue to hold a strong lead in the market, making up 65% of the installed base versus 35% for smartwatches".

However, things clearly haven’t been tracking as rosily for the fitness trackers when we see Sunnebo stating that “the momentum belongs to the smartwatches, which have experienced growth rates of more than 50% year-over-year, while the base for activity trackers grew just 15% during the same period".

So, what is Fitbit’s bit of the market in the US?

Well, in the land of the free, the brave and the often surprisingly fat, Sunnebo says “Fitbit dominates the overall wearables space.”

Not that Sunnebo mentions it in the crass way that I do, but presumably because of the weighty issues that plague some Americans, we are told that “nearly half (47%) of all US wearables owners have a Fitbit".

And, while 16% of owners in the wearables category have an Apple Watch, “Apple dominates the smartwatch category, with a 41% share".

Indeed, explains Sunnebo, “Apple has performed very well in terms of wearables customer satisfaction, with buyers rating the Apple Watch an 8.6 out of 10. Fitbit customers give that company a slightly lower satisfaction rating (8.2 out of 10), but Fitbit’s latest offering, the Charge 2, draws level in satisfaction with the Apple Watch, also at 8.6 out of 10.”

What is Fitbit’s trump card, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Oval Office?

It turns out that Fitbit’s trump card over Apple is “user satisfaction about battery life".

Look, a 2G dumb phone will hold satisfaction over a smartphone in battery life, and some may want to make similar comparisons about simpler Fitbit models and the vastly more advanced Android Wear, Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S3 models we’ve all seen, but even so, a benefit is a benefit and a trump card is a trump card, and I’ll let others make those comparisons.

That said, Sunnebo points us to Fitbit having scored a “net positive of +31 for battery life (those satisfied minus those dissatisfied) vs. the Apple Watch at a minus-5".

Much of this results from Fitbit devices being simpler to use, with smaller, lower-resolution displays, as I alluded to above, and which Sunnebo has clearly acknowledged.

However, says Sunnebo, “the announcement of the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch with a four-day battery life could be a game changer, resolving an issue that vexes many consumers".

We’ll just have to see on that front, and we’ll have to see how many charging cycles it will take for Fitbit’s battery capacity and lifespan degrades, but hey, that’s a problem all device makers have to face up to.

So, what of the payment features within Fitbit?

Well, we wrote about Mastercard helping Fitbit enable Fitbit Pay a couple of days ago, which clearly shows how hard Fitbit has been working on contactless payment, as Sunnebo states.

Our analytical benefactor then states that Fitbit’s “2016 takeover of Coin appears to have been a sound move, given Apple Watch owners’ enthusiasm for mobile purchases”, with a “full 21% of Apple Watch owners say they use their device for making contactless payment at least once a day, with over half using that functionality over the course of a week – both impressive numbers".

Clearly, Fitbit is brave to join the “crowded marketplace” that is Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay, but Sunneo states that “consumers clearly see this capability as a genuine a benefit of a wearable device, since it is always right at hand, so to speak".

And, it’s not just Fitbit and Mastercard that are working together: Sunnebo reports that Fitbit “has also announced Fitbit Pay launch partnerships with Visa and Amex, too”.

Sunnebo then shines his light on Ionic’s “different approach than many competitors in its first real foray into the Smartwatch arena, doubling down on fitness and health with improved heart rate tracking, the ability to monitor oxygen blood levels, and built-in GPS for phone free runs or rides".

Is there an app for that?

Yes, it turns out there is, and Fitbit wants its Ionic to “support third-party apps, highlighting a big change from earlier Fitbits, but launches with just four available apps – and the fact one of these is Strava, a crucial app for cyclists and runners, shows where Fitbit has focused on developing partnerships".

Sunnebo cautions, however, that “in terms of other ‘Smart’ elements, the Ionic is left wanting, compared to the Apple Watch, but the many failed Android Wear attempts and subsequent pull outs by manufacturers, show that focusing away from health and fitness towards notifications and Smartphone replacement-type user cases is a risky road, and one that Fitbit has carefully chosen to avoid".

Thus comes Sunnebo’s conclusion that, “in many ways, the Fitbit Ionic is far more of a competitor to the likes of Garmin than it is to Apple, and with its huge existing installed base, combined with its ability to create beautifully simple yet addictive software, the Ionic could have found an appealing and underserved path".

“They” do say to travel the path less followed, and while this is clearly sound advice, there are times there are reasons why a particular path has been less followed, but with Fitbit’s strength in wearables… it doesn’t seem, to me at least, that Fitbit has bitten off more than it can chew, so Fitbit’s bite of the smartwatch cherry could very well be the cherry on top to boost Fitbit back into its top fitness spot.

The question is… will it?

In Sunnebo’s “Wearables Market Outlook”, he notes that, “unlike the rapid growth seen in demand for smartphones, there does not appear to be a significant group of potential buyers for wearables waiting in the wings".

Amongst those who do not currently own a wearable, sayeth Sunnebo, “a mere 4.6% tell us they will “probably” or “definitely” purchase one in the next 12 months".

And, “of those that intend to purchase, 39% say they will buy a Smartwatch, 30% a fitness tracker, and 31% remain undecided".

Further stats also see the vast majority of consumers “who continue to reject the wearables revolution cites familiar reasons – “too expensive” (45%), “functionality not useful” (32%), “don’t want to wear a watch” (30%), and “smartphone does everything I need” (24%).”

So, while Sunnebo’s sun of shining analysis warms the cockles of our wearables-laden hearts, we’ll just have to wait and see whether Fitbit’s foray into winning wearables is enough to ensure it keeps on wearing the pants in the wearables world, or not.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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