Shortly after introducing HealthKit at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday, Apple released a fitness themed ad to the tune of “Chicken Fat,” the JFK-era ode to phys ed sung by Robert Preston. In a brisk minute, the ad manages to show six fitness devices made by other companies: the Misfit Shine, Fitbit Aria Scale, Wahoo Fitness Blue SC Speed/Cadence Sensor, Withings Health Mate, Zepp Golf Sensor, and Adidas miCoach Smart Ball. In addition it features a dozen third-party fitness-related apps: Wemo, Misfit Shine, Argus, Withings, Zepp Golf, Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout App, Strong Lifts, TRX Force, Sprinttimer, miCoach Smart Ball, Wahoo Fitness, and Nike+ Running.
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So here’s the question: would Apple really be putting a spotlight on a bunch of devices that it intends to put out of business with its forthcoming iWatch? I don’t think so. Instead, I think that Apple’s emphasis on the number and variety of these third-party fitness-related devices and apps is a way of foregrounding the iWatch’s role as a companion device to all of the products featured. HealthKit itself is meant as a central, secure database for all of a user’s health and fitness-related data. The more different data sources a HealthKit enabled device can integrated with, the higher the potential value of the device to a user.
There is a second, crucial consideration in terms of the extent to which the iWatch is designed to be a replacement for these third-party devices. It is of critical importance that the iWatch be light, sleek and energy efficient in comparison to the clunky smartwatches currently on the market. Why hire executives from Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent to market a brick with a strap? Instead of the requirements that many prognosticators have proposed, with involve larding up the iWatch with as many sensors as possible, I suggest that it will instead offload many more specialized sensors to these types of third-party devices. That way it can conserve its bulk and battery life for its functions as a communications node with other devices (iPhone most prominently) and as a “second screen” not only for the iPhone but for all manner of more specialized devices.
The third point to my argument is that the field of wearables is still young and there are few clear winners. Many of the single-use fitness devices have lost their user’s attention and become “shelfware.” The Pebble smartwatch, being multifunctional has had a better retention track record. By being primarily focused on display and coordination, the iWatch will encourage third-party innovation (rather than punish it) and be well-positioned to benefit from the hits and not be saddled with the misses. By being a platform player and not competing with the specialized device makers too directly, Apple can create more long-term value for the iWatch.
Once clear winners emerge, then Apple can use its cash hoard to buy the winners and fold their tech into the next generations of the iWatch itself. But without fostering a supportive platform for apps and devices that can integrate with the iWatch there may not be enough pressing reasons for Apple users to add a wearable to their implicit “Hardware as a Service” subscription.
Conspicuously absent from the “Chicken Fat” ad is the Nike FuelBand. Reports have circulated that Nike is shutting the project down and yet it just released a new limited edition gold version of its Nike+ FuelBand SE fitness tracker. Considering Apple CEO Time Cook’s cozy relationship with Nike, is it possible that the two companies are planning to co-brand a FuelBand-like device that would be Apple’s own in-house companion to the iWatch? Certainly Nike was prominently featured in the HealthKit portion of the WWDC keynote.
Just one further speculation: what could an iWatch do in combination with a FuelBand or some other third-party fitness device without an iPhone present? So much attention has centered on the iPhone as the central hub of everything, but wouldn’t it be nice to take a run without your phone?
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