Fitbit launches a true smartwatch as market gains momentum at last

Fitbit has launched its first true smartwatch, the $300 Ionic. With support for third party apps, but notably no cellular connection, the Ionic is going head-to-head with the Apple Watch, by aiming to provide a premium user experience, as well as challenging the also expensive fitness-focused watches from the likes of Garmin.

Due for release in October, the Ionic will be the most expensive Fitbit device sold to date. While $30 more expensive than the first generation Apple Watch, it is still cheaper than Apple’s second generation design – the one in which the vendor finally nailed the hardware and software to provide a strong user experience. By most accounts, Apple leads the smartwatch market, and so Fitbit has a tough nut to crack here.

Collectively, the industry has come quite a long way in the few short years that the smartwatch market has existed. The critics that decried the requirement for daily charge have mostly fallen silent, as consumers are now quite used to having to charge phones nightly – and no flagship smartphone can achieve two days of high usage anyway.

Similarly, it seems that the sensing capabilities of the watches has also improved, and tweaks to the platforms (particularly Apple’s watchOS and the big updates found in Android Wear 2.0) mean that the devices aren’t hobbled by a poor UI and UX. Broadly, they seem to have shaken the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ reputation that burdened them at launch – and the advent of low-power cellular connectivity via LTE-M or NB-IoT opens up even more doors.

The Ionic watch doesn’t have a cellular connection (but neither does the Apple Watch, although that could soon change), instead relying on WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 to link the watch to smartphones and cloud applications. Integrated GPS, with the antenna built into the aluminum frame of the screen, will support tracking without a direct internet connection, and the on-board data can be offloaded by USB to a PC or Bluetooth to the smartphone application.

It also houses NFC, which can be used for contactless payments and taps. Some 2.5GB of onboard storage will act as home for applications and music or playback, and to this end, Fitbit is launching its own pair of wireless headphones, called Flyer, which are priced at $130. It will annoy some buyers that they have to fork out extra for a strap for the watch at purchase, and that a proprietary design will restrict the third party options.

But perhaps most notable is the claimed battery life – of 10-hours continuous GPS or music playback usage, or up to 4-days with a normal workload. That’s a big increase over the likes of the Apple Watch, which require nightly or daily charging, and assuming that Fitbit can manage smartphone notifications sufficiently, while working outside a phone’s native OS, it could be on to a winner.

For sensors, it has the familiar activity, sleep, and motion tracking sensors, as well as a pulse tracker, and also houses a blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) sensor – which Fitbit says can be used for tracking exertion, as well as things like sleep apnea. The front of the watch is a fairly bright screen, protected by Gorilla Glass 3 – meaning it should survive most of what an active user will do to it. Water-resistant to a depth of 50-meters, the Ionic is being pitched at swimmers too.

The Ionic runs Fitbit OS, a bespoke OS that has been designed to support the applications that the vendor hopes will create a valuable user experience – and tie them into the Fitbit ecosystem for the foreseeable future. Fitbit says the new OS will be the platform for more upcoming wearables – and likely houses some of the code that Pebble used, the smartwatch trailblazer that Pebble recently absorbed for a pittance.

The App Gallery will allow third party applications and watch faces to be sold, and a number of brands have already been announced as partners – including AccuWeather, Pandora, Starbucks, and Strava. Fitbit Pay, the NFC-based payment system that is largely based on tech that Fitbit picked up via its acquisition of Coin, and Digital Trends reports that Amex, MasterCard, and Visa will support the new payment system.

A new application called Fitbit Coach (formerly called FitStar) is included, which is aimed at those looking for guided and personalized workout plans. The app can use Run Detect to track and log a runner’s routes and speeds, and a mode for swimming will keep track of the number of lengths swum.

Much of the user experience hangs on the performance of the applications, but Fitbit has historically done quite well in this arena – with reviewers mostly being quite favorable to the software. The Ionic looks like a weighty upgrade over its predecessor – the $200 Blaze, which was launched back in 2016, but now retails closer to $150. Its aesthetic appeal appears to have improved, becoming less boxy and more sleek, and the addition of those third party apps.

The launch comes just after Gartner released its latest wearable sales update. The report estimates that 310.4m wearables will be sold in 2017, for a total of $30.5bn in revenue (an average selling price of $98.26). Of that total, Gartner says 41.5m will be smartwatches – around 13.4% of total wearable sales, and up 20% compared to 2016.

These smartwatches will account for 30.5% of total revenue – $9.3bn, resulting in an average selling price of $224.10. As for future growth, the study predicts that total smartwatch sales will hit 81m units in 2021, standing at 16% of total wearable unit sales. The revenue smartwatches generate in 2021 is expected to hit $17.4bn – the highest of any wearable category, and equating to an average selling price of $214.81.

For other wearable segments, the study finds that Bluetooth headsets will continue to take the largest share, at 48% of total units – growing 16.7% in the year to hit 150m units in 2017. Wristbands are expected to climb 26.1% in shipments, to hit 44.1m units in 2017, and head-mounted displays (VR, AR) will grow 36.8% to 22.01m units. Fitness monitors will grow 0.4% in the year, to hit 55.7m units in 2017, and sports watches will climb 0.9% to 21.43m units.

According to another researcher, IDC, the wearables market, led by smartwatches, grew 10.3% year-on-year in the second quarter. The firm said: “Smartwatches recorded double-digit year-on-year growth, with much of that increase attributable to a growing number of models aimed at specific market segments, like the fashion-conscious and outdoor enthusiasts in addition to the technophile crowd, lower price points and a slowly warming reception from consumers and enterprise users alike. Factor in how smartwatches are taking steps to become standalone devices, and more applications are becoming available, and the smartwatch slowly becomes a more suitable mass market product.”

IDC ranked Xiaomi at the top of the vendor list with 13.4% of the global market by units via 3.1m shipments in the second quarter, mostly in the low end sector. Apple – the market leader by revenue – came in second with its Watch, with 13% of the global market on estimated shipments of 2.3m, up 50% year-on-year in Q2. The remainder of the top five global wearable vendors were Fitbit, Garmin and Fossil, according to IDC.

Meanwhile, another research firm, CCS Insight, said this is a “critical year” for smartwatches. Its calculations conclude that watchmakers like Hugo Boss and Tag Heuer are developing smart devices, helping to boost Android Wear’s market share from 14% last year to a predicted 21% in 2017. But the Apple Watch 2 will claim more than half of the $7.9bn smartwatch market this year, says CCS, and help drive 2018 smartwatch sales to 60m units in total.

“We believe established watch brands using Google’s Android Wear have a much better chance of energizing the smartwatch market than smartphone makers such as Asus, Motorola and Sony, all of which have effectively withdrawn,” said the analysts. “Traditional watchmakers will be relying on their strengths in distribution, retail and branding in the hope of cracking a nut that proved too tough for many of the biggest names in the smartphone world.”