Is the sheen wearing off wearable technology?

Fitness tracker market faces shake-up as big players like Nike weigh pulling plug on projects

Is Nike preparing to pull the plug on its wearable technology projects? Evidence certainly points that way at least on the hardware side of things. The company this week confirmed it was reducing the size of its digital sports team, although the extent of the cuts has not yet been clarified.

Its activity tracker is facing increasing competition from a range of companies – from Jawbone and Fitbit to Samsung and Garmin. And now, with Apple looking likely to enter the smartwatch fray, it seems Nike has decided enough is enough. It seems increasingly likely it will concentrate on software collaborations with companies such as Apple rather than low-margin hardware.

It’s a warning shot for the fitness tracker market. The sector is littered with failures and also-rans. The Jawbone Up was recalled in 2011 due to faulty hardware, although the improved version went a long way to restoring its reputation. The Fitbit Force was also withdrawn from sale after the company received complaints that it caused skin irritations.

Samsung’s plans for the S Health Band were quietly downgraded after the firm introduced the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. With the new generation of smart watches increasingly focusing on the health and fitness sector, it’s likely that there will be a few more casualties along the way.

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Bamboozled
Consumers are bamboozled by the sheer array of technology at their disposal, all using different methods of measurement, and all likely coming up with different results. That's before you get into the competition presented by smartphones, which the majority of consumers interested in this type of technology are already carrying, and which have a vast array of apps to track everything.

Fitness trackers and smartwatchs are a significant investment for consumers too, with none of these trackers classed as a cheap option.

And the technology is moving at a fast pace. Only eight months ago, Samsung unveiled its first generation Gear, the Android-powered smartwatch that works exclusively with its own line of phones. By February, that had been superseded by the Gear 2 and the Gear Fit, which are based on an open-sourced software package Tizen. Coming shortly are devices built on Google’s new Android Wear platform, which will likely be fitness-focused at least at first.

You couldn’t blame consumers for sitting tight to see what happens for a short while at least. And then there’s the Galaxy Gear, which offers elements of both a smartwatch and a dedicated fitness tracker.

Nike, for its part, has been trying to convince consumers for some time now that its Fuel points system is worth investing in. The company has unveiled app after app designed to work with the system, which measures how active you are and converts that into a points value. That has been offered through its Nike+ Running app, Nike+ Training, Nike+ Basketball and the female-focused Training Club. The main aim is getting people moving, and locked in to its points system.

Nike is no stranger to hardware collaboration either. It already hooked up with the tech firm for its step- tracking device that worked with the iPad, the Nike+iPod system. Then there was the collaboration with TomTom on a GPS watch, before the sports firm signed up with Microsoft to develop a fitness application aimed at Kinect users on the Xbox 360.

Its Fuelband works exclusively with iOS devices, leaving Android users in the cold. And its Move app for iOS hooks into the iPhone 5S’s co-processor, which measures activity throughout the day.


Apple smartwatch plans
However, as yet, Apple's rumoured smartwatch is an unknown. Although plans for the tech giant to move into wearable technology are discussed on a regular basis in the media, the device has yet to be officially unveiled.

But Nike may know something we don't; Apple chief executive Tim Cook sits on the Nike board and has done for almost a decade. Perhaps Nike is privy to some information that may have coloured its recent decisions.

Regardless of what Nike ultimately decides, the fitness tracker market isn't over. But it is certainly facing a shake-up in the coming months.


Fit for purpose? Ciara O'Brien puts four fitness trackers to the test
Galaxy Gear Fit

Of all the fitness trackers available out there, the Gear Fit appears to try to do the most. Part fitness tracker, part smartwatch, it comes with a curved colour touch screen and runs on Samsung's Tizen open source software. All the customisation - adding apps, changing backgrounds - must be done through the Gear Manager app, which you install on your smartphone.

The Gear Fit measures exercise, such as runs, walks, long cycles, while also tracking your steps through a pedometer function.

A built-in heart rate tracker lets you to build a profile of your health on the S Health app on your phone.

It doesn’t measure sleep straight out of the box but you can add the sleep tracker to S Health app on your galaxy phone and that will allow the Gear Fit to monitor your sleep.

One caveat: the Gear Fit currently only works with Galaxy phones, effectively locking other Android users out of the system.

Our rating: 3/5



Fitbit Flex
The Fitbit Force has been withdrawn from the market, so the Flex is left as the company's fitness band of choice. The brains of the Flex are in the small sensor, which can be swapped into a new silicon band as the whim takes you. That gives it an advantage over the Up and the Nike Fuelband, as you aren't limited to one size and colour. The band will also give you an indication of how close you are to your goal; tapping on the sensor brings up some LED lights that guide you.

The Flex will measure everything from daily steps to your sleep, provided you remember to switch it to sleep mode.

To sync it with your laptop, there is a small plug-in dongle; charging requires a proprietary dock. That’s the chief negative point about this device – yet another thing to lose.


Our rating: 4/5


Jawbone Up
The JawBone Up 24 is the successor to the Jawbone Up, which had a bit of a false start in its initial launch. However, for now, Irish buyers can only get the Up.

So with that proviso, the UP boasts long battery life and sleep and movement tracking.

However, it has no screen to track your progress and you need to plug it into your smartphone to sync it so you can gather the data and find out how you are doing.

Switch it to sleep mode with a press of a button, and an LED indicator will let you know that you’ve made the change successfully.

The Up is sold in sized bands, so there is no chance of swapping the band for a new one, or customising it like you can with the Fitbit Flex. You get what you pay for.

The updated Up24 band will keep much of what was good about the original - long battery life, sleep and movement tracking - and throws in wireless syncing.

It’s due on sale this spring.

Our rating: 3/5



Nike+ FuelBand SE
The FuelBand SE is the follow-up to the original Fuelband, and on the outside, you'd be hard-pressed to find much to differentiate the two.

The SE comes in better colours, and it’s more water-resistant than the original, but is that worth the upgrade? The band performs the same functions: it measures your steps, tracks calories burned and converts all your movement into Nike Fuel points so you can keep track of how well (or badly) you are doing compared to previous days.

Nike’s Fuelband also acts as a watch, displaying everything on an LED light display, and the obligatory app to sync the information with and track online. But Nike has improved the sensors in the SE, so it’s more accurate and less susceptible to cheating. It’s not simply movement that’s measured – you could fool the original band by waving your arm a lot – but how often you move and the intensity of it. The Bluetooth 4.0 means it will send data to your mobile device in real time – not when you remember to sync it.

Our rating: 2/5