The Rise of Fitness Tracking and Fall of GPS Sports Watches

If there’s one stand out of 2014’s Christmas season it was the rise of the Fitness Tracker, for one FitBit adds and product in the stores were near inescapable.  And, anecdotally, more than a few folks have received trackers under the tree.  More importantly these devices a set to supersede market specific exercise watches such as TomTom’s Runner/Multisport Cardio or a range of Garmin devices in a big way.

In 2014 TomTom upped it’s game by including an optical heart rate monitor as part of it’s new Cardio series, freeing runners and multisport enthusiasts from the dreaded heart rate band sensor.  That makes for a bit less chaffing in the world, and one less item for remember on the way out the door which is no bad thing.  One of the biggest pluses of sport oriented units over a smart watch, of course, is you don’t need to run, bike or swim with your smart phone.  doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’re ready to throw that iPhone that’s been bouncing in your pocket for the past 25km into the bushes.  And, woes be the owner of phablets like a iPhone 6+ or Samsung Note 4 – you’re in the realm of buying running gear with cargo pockets… good luck.

TW5K89100The problem for GPS watches, despite being in second and third generations, is they aren’t advancing near as fast as offerings from fitness tracking companies like FitBit.  The FitBit Surge, for example, in one product generation offers the “have your cake and eat it too” scenario of light smart watch functionality, continual fitness tracking, and GPS functionality on par with TomTom and Garmin offerings.  The Surge also stands alone from the phone, remedying most smart watches shortfalls of needing external connectivity.  Timex’s upcoming IronMan One goes one step further by adding standalone SMS connectivity to the mix.  In short we are seeing a Fitness Tracker and GPS Training Watch convergence, that largely appears to be stealing the thunder of the bigger GPS companies producing fitness watches.  There’s a good reason for that, the start up mentality of companies like FitBit allows them to outstrip the product design of the bigger companies.

The limitation of course is that a these Tracking/Training watches, like the IronMan One or Surge, currently, don’t support additional external applications like a true smart watch.  However, one tends not to be app-centric mid-run or race.  The concept also asks the question, how long before there is a SDK for these devices, even a rudimentary one like Ambit’s Suunto Apps.  Will Timex get smart and realize that having a connected watch allows for the pushing of firmware and software updates, borrowing from Tesla’s innovative model of connected car updates?  Will the more established companies like TomTom and Garmin catch on?

I am a TomTom Cardio Runner owner, and by way of experience, I’d say TomTom’s product is solid, but not outstanding.  Especially in terms of usability.  The stopwatch feature doesn’t track a users heart rate, despite the sensor being available, so if you go for a hike you’re not able to collect that data discretely from your run logging.  There is no upgrade path for moving from the Runner to the Multisport, for those of us who were early adopters, despite the hardware being essentially the same.  The actual sports tracked “officially” within the product are ridiculously limited for an active individual; run for the Runner, with bike and swim added by going with the MultiSport.  These are straightforwards software changes, but updates come at a glacial pace of old companies working in the new arena of technology.  Even TomTom’s optical heart rate monitor is licensed from the Mio Alpha optical sensor Kickstarter project.  So the Cardio’s big innovation is, well, someone else’s.

So where am I putting my bets for the biggest advancements in GPS Training watches going forwards into 2015?  The fitness tracking companies.  Consumer grade GPS chipsets are easy to find these days, but innovation is still the realm of the start ups.

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