Watches are the Next Fitness Trackers

By Eric Limer on at

This year's CES is flooded with fitness trackers, and there are hundreds more waiting in the wings. But what sets the most interesting ones apart isn't price: it's design. The fitness tracker and the watch are converging, in the best possible way. And faster than you might have thought.

A lot of fitness trackers don't look bad per se. Fitbit's Charge, for instance, has a certain flair to it. As does Misfit's Shine, or even the Jawbone Up24. You'd never mistake any for a fashion statement, but they don't look like rubbish.

But then came the Withings Activité, a fitness tracker that looked exactly like a nice watch. Or maybe it's a nice watch that's also a fitness tracker. That's the ever-more-blurry line that's now poised to disappear completely. The Withings Activité Pop muddies the divide even more, coming in equal parts watch and fitness tracker DNA for a price that's right for a nice fitness tracker or a nice watch.

The pairing makes sense. A lot more sense, even, than the smartwatch melding of watch and phone, which necessitates complicated touchscreens and battery problems and notification support and bulky ugly bodies. Really, a fitness-tracking dumb-watch is maybe the smartest "smartwatch" combo there is.

Both watches and fitness trackers count the slow, ticking passage of a single variable, both require fairly little energy to do that job right, both are good at their jobs because they are on your wrist, and neither of them becomes unfashionable very fast. Most of today's fitness bands aren't much more than smart, connected pedometers, and those will work just as well five years from now as they do right this second. There's not much of an upgrade cycle here, in a way your wallet and your sanity will appreciate.

As Withings — and surely others to follow — are pushing fitness bands into traditional watch territory, it also makes sense for a convergence to come from the opposite direction. It's not too hard to imagine Timex or Fossil throwing a little step tracker into its traditional watches if the prospect of doing it becomes trivial. Devices like the Activité Pop suggest that there are few if any technological barriers left. And on the software side it's easy enough to simply lean on Healthkit and Google Fit, each hungry for data to lock into their ecosystems. Even third-party app like Jawbone's Up, which is already open to Pebbles and Android Wear, would work.

There's still a place for other fitness-tracking gadgets of course. More robust devices like the Basis Peak that aim to read your heart rate or divine the nature of your soul through your sweat have their place with hardcore data junkies and fitness nuts. The simpler functionality of step-counting and sleep-tracking are destined for a quieter existence, one that's better even if it means the death of a whole booming brand of increasingly redundant gadgets.

The future we're watching unfold is one in which current watch wearers get invisible fitness tracking, a subtle, helpful, health-tracking bonus built right into the watches they already like to wear. The rest of us get to free up space on our wrists to wear a watch again. Because whether wearables are just a fad or really are here to stay, there's only piece of functional wrist jewellery that's held its own for nearly a century. It's going to take more than some pedometers and smartphones to kill it for good.