Fitness trackers are facing a problem. It's not demand, that's still off-the-charts and shows no sign of abating. It's not devices – we have more than enough of those. The problem facing the fitness tracker market is a race to the bottom, that threatens their very existence.
Let me explain.
Over the last year we've seen the price of fitness trackers tumble. Cheaper devices always make their way into any established technology sector – just look at the smartwatch section of Amazon, which is positively brimming with tat.
But cheap fitness trackers are no longer terrible. Decent, useable devices are on offer for under $50. Withings and Jawbone have them, as well as a host of manufacturers you wouldn't expect.
Two cases in point: the obvious one is Xiaomi which is about to launch its third fitness tracker – the Xiaomi Mi Band 2 – which offers pretty much all the features of top end Fitbit and Garmin trackers for around $40.
And more surprisingly, we've been trying out the Archon Touch fitness tracker, which is a UK only release that costs just £30. While Xiaomi is a huge Chinese brand, the Archon band is perhaps the more impressive. Yeah, it looks dreadful with a sickeningly awful screen, but after a couple of weeks of wear it strands up pretty well. Boasting accurate data and a really nice app, it begs the question: is it really worth forking out for more for a Fitbit?
The Archon Touch fitness tracker surprises by not being terrible
The flip side is the Fitbit Alta. Selling in its droves (1 million shipped in the first three weeks on sale) thanks to Fitbit's brand power, every metric defines it as a roaring success. But when the Mi Band 2 lands on these shores, the story will be more features for a fifth of the price.
So why is this a problem?
Well, as the likes of Xiaomi and Archon get better, it starts to pressure the top end, and we're already seeing the results of that squeeze. While Fitbit is the big brand at the top, its natural competitor Jawbone is getting battered in the sales tables.
And there's already a features arms race happening to ward off the cheapo trackers.
The first tech escalation was heart rate, the preserve of the top end tracker. Well, Xiaomi already has that. The next is GPS, included on the latest Garmin and Samsung Gear Fit2 devices, but hasn't trickled down to the low end yet. Beyond that we're now seeing happiness, stress and advanced cardiovascular metrics appearing.
My concern that in the race to keep us paying top dollar for the next essential metric, quality of data will suffer. By tacking on the next sensor that will reveal the next piece of must-have data, the margins of accuracy could diminish.
We're already seeing question marks over the accuracy of optical heart rate monitors. But can the likes of Fitbit afford to perfect these over time, as competitors hawk out similar offerings at less than half the price?
Cheap fitness trackers are getting good – and could be a big problem for everyone.