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Why I swapped my Swatch for a Fitbit

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 30, 2015
A few weeks ago I swapped my Swatch wristwatch for a Fitbit wearable. Despite its drawbacks, I'm a convert to this digitally augmented timepiece on my wrist

I've worn a Swatch on my wrist since the mid-1980s, when the brand first swept to prominence with its affordable and trendy/casual wristwatch designs. But last month I broke with that 30-year habit and swapped my Swatch for a Fitbit activity band.

That decision chalks up another win for the wearables team in the developing battle between the new smart device makers and the traditional watch industry. Sales of watches are tumbling while wearables soar.

Recent figures on the wearables market from IDC show that Fitbit is selling the most units (see chart below). The Apple iWatch is close behind and costs more per unit, so leads by value. But irrespective who's leading, just look at the year-on-year growth, with unit sales more than tripling. This is a market that's gaining ground fast.

Infographic: Fitbit Fends Off Apple to Retain Wearables Market Lead | Statista

Will it stick? There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that many fitness trackers get discarded after the initial enthusiasm wears off (much like gym memberships). Around half of Fitbit's 19 million registered users aren't active, despite a very low threshold for being considered active (Fitbit defines an active user as one who's logged as few as 100 steps, or has simply connected a device to the Fitbit app).

Why the wearable won against the watch

As someone who's made the switch, here's what I think. My verdict is not good news for the watchmakers, even though Swatch's CEO was making bullish comments about the company's smartwatch plans last week.

Fitbit Charge HR wearable on wrist by @philww
I say I broke a habit, but the Fitbit model I chose (the Charge HR) still tells me the time and date when I look at it. So I still wear a timepiece on my wrist, but what I wear is a different kind of device from the watch it replaced, one that happens to do other stuff, too.

I especially like that I've been able to link the Fitbit to my iPhone so that it vibrates and shows the caller ID when I have an incoming phone call. I used to miss calls sometimes when I couldn't hear the phone ringing or feel it vibrate in my pocket — for example if I was out walking on a busy street. I don't miss those calls now.

I explicitly chose a slimmer wrist device rather than the chunkier, full-face devices like the iWatch or Fitbit's own Surge. I'm not fond of chunky watches. I wanted something as light and slim as my old Swatch. What I chose gives me time, date, alerts and alarms without attaching an uncomfortable deadweight to my wrist.

This means the Fitbit is offering more than my old Swatch even before we add in the fitness tracking. Mind you, I've read enough about the unreliability of the metrics these fitness bands measure that I know to take them with a large dose of salt. See for example my diginomica colleague Den Howlett giving a roasting to wearables and the Fitbit Force fraud.

About those inaccurate fitness metrics

Despite these qualifications, I have to admit I still get a self-satisfied buzz when my wristband vibrates to celebrate passing the 10,000-step milestone. But I'm well aware that the Fitbit will record steps when I'm sitting down and waving my hand around and yet fail to measure steps when I'm walking with my arms still. No one should regard these devices as totally accurate measures of physical activity. My wife is mystified and somewhat resentful at my ability to record 30 percent more steps than her, even when we spend the entire day together. We've decided it's due to different stride lengths.

What I will say is that the Fitbit works well as a general guide to activity levels, despite the inaccuracy at a detailed level. If I spend all day at my desk, I record a third of the steps than if I have to go out on errands a couple of times. It reminds me of the value of finding a reason to walk out once or twice in the day.

The metric I was most interested to measure was my sleep. I've never tracked my sleeping patterns before and it's given me valuable information over the past few weeks that I'm using to advantage. Again, the device may miss occasional naps, but on the whole I find it does a good job of recording how much time I actually spend asleep each night. I can then track the effect on my work output the next day and have started to adjust my sleep habits accordingly.

One small niggle I have is that I can't change timezones without a wifi connection. My habit on transatlantic flights has been to change to the destination timezone once we're safely in the air. The Fitbit and its app won't allow me to do that, even if I illicitly take my iPhone out of flight mode temporarily to enable the Bluetooth connection. It's a small irritation but one that I hope will be corrected.

A more serious complaint is about having to charge it every few days. I look forward to a longer-lived generation of these devices. My solution for now has been to charge the device when I'm in the shower (where I can't wear it anyway), and from time to time to give it a full charge while I'm seated at my desk for a couple of hours. The other solution to this conundrum of course is to buy a second one. I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet, but as the battery gets older it will probably become a necessity.

In 30 years of owning a Swatch, I think I bought no more than three of them. This is probably galling news for the Swiss watchmaker, given that much of its marketing was based around positioning Swatch as a brand that allowed you to pick a watch that matched your mood or your outfit. The idea was that customers would buy several at a time for their wardrobe.

So I was not an ideal customer, albeit a very loyal one. I loved the fact that if I ever had a problem, I could just drop in to a nearby Swatch outlet (my favorite was the stand at London's Victoria Station) and they would fix it for you — I had several buckles replaced free of charge that way. I had a real relationship with the brand.

Can the watchmakers win me back?

It seems very unfair that Fitbit has won me over with a product that costs around five times more than the Swatch and yet will prove less reliable and durable. I'm already resigned to having to buy another Fitbit, probably in less than a year's time, despite my reservations about the three-figure price tag.

But I'm going to keep an eye on the market and remain open to switching once again. Swatch clearly has an advantage in terms of its history of reducing power requirements and extending battery life. If it can add useful extra functions then it may yet tempt me back. I'm certainly intrigued by the notion aired by its CEO of including a contactless payment capability. I already use contactless cards for various purchases including traveling on London public transport. If I could touch in and out with the device on my wrist it would be the height of convenience, eliminating the perennial irritation of card clash.

On the other hand, Fitbit has the opportunity to build a relationship with me if it adds more functionality to its app. For example, today it simply measures my heart rate, but if it offered additional insight around those metrics in the future then that might become more valuable to me. Today, the fitness metrics are simply a bonus rather than a must-have.

One thing's for certain though. I've made the transition from mechanical watch wearer to wearables convert. I'm not going back now. The real estate on my wrist is valuable to me. I would resent it being taken up by a device that merely told me the time and date. I don't want to be overwhelmed by unwanted functionality, but now that I've experienced what else is possible, I expect a bit more.

Image credits: Chart by Statista, Fitbit by @philww.

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