Fitbit CEO says Apple is doing wearables wrong. How should it be done?

The CEO of Fitbit says his company is taking a different approach to wearable technology than the Apple Watch. And it sells.

Mel Evans/AP
Gary Wilhelm looks at his medical data on a smart phone that is synchronized to a new Fitbit Surge that is on his wrist during a medical examination, in Hackensack, N.J. on Feb. 5, 2015. The executive of Fitbit is now describing the company's product, not as a competitor with the Apple Watch, but rather as a different approach to wearable technology.

It's the chicken-or-egg discussion of the 21st-century: Is wearable technology a smartphone slapped on the wrist, or is it a clothing line that just happens to contain greater computing power than the original space shuttle? 

The executive of Fitbit is arguing that his company's slim bracelets represent an entirely different – and superior – approach to answering that question than the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch represents a "computing platform," but Fitbit Chief Executive James Park says this is the wrong approach to wearable technology.

"That's really the wrong way to approach this category from the very beginning," Mr. Park told The New York Times. 

It's a strong statement, not to mention a marketing gamble in a competitive field. Fitbit's approach is a smaller, single-purpose product designed to gather different types of health data about an individual. The approach is being replicated with a variety of tracking devices, for more than just the wrist. Park said his company's goal is not to build toward Apple Watch computing power, but rather to cultivate the less expensive device's purpose as technology improves. 

"We're going to be very careful with how we include these things over time," he told the Times. "I think one of the general knocks against smartwatches is that people still don't know what they're good for, so they've crammed everything in."

The less-is-more strategy is seeing some success among consumers. Fitbit almost doubled the number of devices sold between 2014 and 2015, jumping from 10.9 million to 21.3 devices and making it "the undisputed worldwide leader of wearable devices," researchers from IDC wrote in a press release.

But Fitbit's approach carries risks as well, Brian Chen wrote for The New York Times. Cisco's Flip camcorder and GoPro's action camera are single-purpose devices that have not launched as expected, because people wanted a device that could do it all. Apple does not disclose official data, but analysts estimate it sold 12 million Apple Watches since the April 2015 release, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Although its sales have been strong, reviews for the Apple Watch have been oddly mixed.

"Perhaps the biggest challenge is the Watch’s lack of a defining purpose," Daisuke Wakabayashi wrote for The Wall Street Journal. "It does certain things well, such as activity tracking, mobile payments, and notifications. But there is no task the Apple Watch handles that can’t be done by an iPhone or a less-expensive activity tracker."

Rather than defining the user's need and then marketing to it, Apple has used its brand to create a menu from which Apple Watch wearers can order à la carte. Its expansive approach to innovation has benefited Fitbit.

"When the iPhone 4S debuted in 2011 with support for accessory synching via Bluetooth 4.0, Park realized real-time connectivity opened the door to a slew of new fitness tracking possibilities," wrote AppleInsider in a press release. "Bluetooth connectivity is now standard on most wearables."

The conventional wisdom has held that many Apple Watch fans appreciate the edgy element of wearable technology but do not fully explore all its capabilities. Some have tried the Apple Watch for its novelty rather than its relevance to their lives.

"I'd never owned a first-edition Apple anything, I wanted to get the first Apple Watch," says Jake Faulkner, an Apple Watch owner who works in sales in Utah. "It’s kind of a glorified notifier for me, because it does so much more than I use it for."

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