Essays on Technology and Culture

Of Fitness Trackers and Smart Watches

As a slightly belated birthday gift, I got a Jawbone UP Move from my girlfriend. And lost it within 36 hours. In those 36 hours, I was so taken by the Jawbone UP ecosystem that as soon as I had the chance to get to a store, I bought a replacement. Yes, fitness trackers are largely hype. No, this isn’t my first dalliance with trackers. I started 2014 with a FitBit One, lost that inside of a day, and bought a replacement that I lost five months later. I’ve used fitness tracking apps on my iPhone, despite ongoing issues with that I only solved by nuking and repaving my iPhone.

I decided to get a tracker because it reduces some of the failure points in getting a sense of my activity. Since the UP Move is a very basic clip-on tracker that runs on a watch battery, the main point of failure is losing the stupid thing. Again. Considering the flakiness in using my phone as a fitness tracker, this seemed a smart investment. What I like most about the UP Move is that is does not try to be much more than it is. As fitness trackers go, it is the most basic, bare-bones device one can get. It tracks steps, it tracks sleep. That’s it. All the really fancy stuff happens in the app ecosystem, and I can’t imagine that logging my lunch on a 1.5″ screen is going to be much fun.

The basic fitness tracker is far more compelling to me than a “smart watch” because of its simplicity and focus. Nobody has articulated exactly why I would need a screen on my wrist, and the benefits it would give me over just taking a phone out of my pocket. Apple, as I mentioned in September, has come the closest to articulating it, but I’m still not convinced this is something I need. My life, and the way I use my devices, mitigates the need to have something buzzing on my wrist for something important. I’ve set up my phone to only buzz if it’s something worthy of distracting me. We’re already going to have to curate the crap that gets sent to our little wrist-buzzing screens. I’ve skipped a step and curated it before it even hits the phone.

As the Apple Watch launch grows near, and as more companies enter the smart watch space, bringing new ideas and interfaces, I’m maintaining cautious optimism that someone, probably Apple, will make exactly the right case for a device I can wear on my wrist to solve some problem I didn’t even know I had. Until that time, the problems I have are already solved by existing, and cheaper solutions. Too many buzzing and beeping notifications on my phone? Turn them off. Needing to know how much I move and how well I sleep? I have a fitness tracker. Need to know what time it is? I have a plain, ordinary wristwatch—one I also clip my UP Move to and so I don’t need to spend the extra sixteen bucks on a rubber wristband for sleep tracking.

These things are the right solution for somebody. Patrick Rhone is huge on personal fitness, and sees the Apple Watch as a perfect replacement for a runner’s GPS watch, and more. Andy Ihnatko has been singing the praises of the Moto 360 for months, and it works well with his lifestyle of regular travel. That’s two use cases right there. The case has been articulated for both of them, and it’s been articulated for others. It’s all just plain overkill for me. Until either my life changes to the point where a smart watch makes sense, or a smart watch maker articulates a use case that makes sense for me where I am, I’ll stick with what I’ve got.