Why Apple, Samsung and the big boys are already playing catch up

The likes of Misfit and Withings are hurting the old guard, but how long can it last?
David vs Goliath of wearables

Technology is run by the giants but it's the small guys who own wearables. You'd be hard pushed to walk into a home and find that the television isn't made by Samsung, Sony, LG or Panasonic, but look down at someone's wrist to see what activity tracker they're entrusting their health to and the facts are in reverse. Fitbit and Jawbone are on the up while the Gear Fit, Lifeband Touch and SmartBand can find little traction.

Figures released by technology analyst company Canalys show that Fitbit controls an astonishing 50% of the world's wearable band market – despite the embarrassing recall on the recent Fitbit Force and the fact that some of the company's most popular products aren't even wrist-worn either.

Bookmark Wareable: The authority on wearable tech

If you look at just the smarter bands within this sector, the smartwatch type, then it's Pebble who bosses it with a 35% share while Samsung can only muster about two-thirds of that. So, what's going on? How is it that almost every man and his dog has a Galaxy mobile, if not an iPhone, but far fewer are interested in wearing the big boys' tech?

The big guys don't care

Sonny Vu is the president and CEO of Misfit Wearables, the company behind the multi-award winning activity tracker and sleep monitor, the Misfit Shine.

The market's not actually that big and these big guys don't care.

On the wearables scene since 2011, he has some very clear ideas as to what's given the little guys the edge.

“One is that we're early. Two is because the market's not actually that big and these big guys don't care," he explained. "Smartphones - there are billions of people buying them; activity trackers - tens of millions. As a big company, you have to go after billion dollar opportunities."

“They're only now waking up to the fact that the market is actually getting to be a meaningful size and thinking, 'You know, we should be in that market.' Two years ago it was not big news. It was way smaller than it is now. But, by 2015, 2016, these are going to be multi-hundred million unit markets."

Vu's thoughts certainly tally with the Canalys data. There were 2.7 million wearable tech bands sold in the first quarter of 2014, but the big players have dabbled in this space in the past.

Focus is the key

The LG GD910 smartwatch was ahead of the curve, with its touchscreen and video calling capabilities, when it arrived for sale at the end of 2009. Never heard of it? Well, that's testament to how much of an impact it made. It was so unsuccessful that it made the whole concept disappear for another four years until Pebble picked it up and did it right. So, there must be more than just timing at play.

We didn't make a
trade-off in using high
end materials to
make a beautiful watch

“The key word is 'focus'," according to the founder of Withings, Cédric Hutchings. “I come from the engineering world. If you have a lot of capabilities, it's hard to say, 'Okay, let's not do it just because we can do it.' If you are a big tech giant and you can do this and that on a watch, I think there is a very risky tendency to do it all on the device, and have a kind of smartphone on your wrist. It might have a market - it's a very new market - but I think it will not appeal to everybody."

Another small but hugely significant part of the wearables landscape, Withings hit the scene in 2009 with its Wi-Fi-connected, body-analysing scales – the idea of which seemed as ludicrous as the Wi-Fi kettle until people started using it. In 2013, the company entered the activity tracking space with the Withings Pulse: a device, like the Shine, that does not necessarily have to be worn around the wrist.

One year on and Withings has arrived at a more traditional, analogue, leather-strap smartwatch product called the Activité that's set for release in October although, as Hutchings says, it's far from a smartphone on your arm and, crucially, it doesn't require charging.

“I think there is a really huge part of the market that we want to address with devices such as Activité. People can now be helped and motivated with some tracking tools without the cost of bringing new constraints into their daily life and a new device onto their body."

Wearables aren't new, they're called wrist watches

The idea is that wearables, like the Activité, are not new. We're are already wearing them. They're called watches and we like the way they look. Some of these other things that are being thrown are just not as appealing nor that practical.

“We found that wearables were not that wearable," says Hutchings. “Most of the devices have to be charged every other day. Most of the devices have a screen that requires you to be in the shade to be able to read the time. Ours is a simple idea that can bring the benefits of quantified tracking on a daily basis without bringing theses shortcomings into a wearable. So, we did not take any trade-off or compromise into designing and bringing all the high end materials to really make a beautiful watch."

So, while the small guys, those with the focus, have been attempting to make lifestyle products that people can relate to, the tech giants have become fixated on creating gadgets that customers can now strap to their bodies, and it seems we're not so sure we want to. Withings and Misfit make trackers that are chic, flexible to wear and even invisible, if you want them to be, tucked away in a pocket or sock. The Gear Fit and friends are more for tech enthusiasts, but how does a company the size of Sony or Samsung or LG not see this happening with such huge man power available and virtually unlimited resources?

“Because it's made by a bunch of engineers in Korea, what do you expect," answers Sonny Vu as he takes us through the big company thought process. “'We've got curved displays! The displays are curved now and it's really beautiful, it's high resolution.' What these companies do is make really amazing screens, so everything needs to have a screen. If Louis Vuitton made it in France, they would have come up with something different."

“The approach we took was, 'Well, what would people wear? Then let's put the electronics on it. The way of thinking really has to be different. Most of these folks approaches is, 'Let's figure out what the technology can do, then let's wrap it in a cool package that's round or curved with dots or whatever. Then let's get the designers to make it beautiful. We'll make it in fuchsia! Then we'll get the marketing people to convince people to wear it. Hey, if you wear it, we'll give you data and actual insights! It's really cool. It's the new hot thing. Please buy it.'"

“That's a horrible way of innovating. I feel like we're leading ourselves down a bad path. Whereas why don't we start with what people actual want and stop at nothing to make it. And if you can't make it, then make something else; rather that than make stuff that people don't want."

Small guys innovate; big guys make money

While wearable technology is still in its infancy, it's going to be a struggle for the establishment to get it right. All of them will have the same lessons to learn but it won't phase them, because they've done it all before. It took years for Samsung to get mobiles right. The company never quite cracked it in the feature phone space where Motorola and Nokia thrived, and its list of forgettable smartphone attempts is as great as the dynasty of success since the Galaxy S finally nailed it in 2010. Why? Because it's only once a market is big enough that they turn the might of their resources upon it and, by that stage, the hard working of discovering what these gadgets should look like and what they should do has already been done. It's the natural order, as Vu explains.

“Innovation typically occurs from small companies and not big ones. Big companies do not innovate. That's not what they're made for. Big companies are for scale. It's usually the little companies that figure out the cool things and then they get bought up by the big companies and the big companies make a lot of money. That's how it's always been in the history of innovation."

There are other difference at the user end between the Gear wearables and those more successful from the smaller players but that's what it ultimately boils down to. Withings, Misfit, Jawbone and Fitbit generally have more useful ways of handling your data and more relevant ecosystems to feed all that into. Their fitness advice is solid and dashboard interfaces more modern because they need to be and because they have as many people working on the back end and the user-experience as they do on the hardware.

But what might keep them all in business and winning that game for a little while longer is that there has not yet been that watershed moment where we've figured out what wearables are actually for.

The iPhone-paradigm-shift-moment has not happened and, until that time, the manufacturing goliaths have no ideas to borrow and no blueprints to reproduce.

So, expect your next tracker to be from a smaller company, and don't forget to stop and appreciate its design.

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