The smartphones that the vast majority of us carry around in our pockets, throw in our bags, or often end up losing at bars or whatever are all fairly similar. No matter if you’re an Android user, an iPhone user, a Windows Phone user or even a BlackBerry user holding on until the bitter end, they all allow us to do the same things. The sort of social media apps, messaging apps, types of websites, types of games and so on that say, an iPhone user would use is never too far away from what an Android user might use. Ecosystems are what the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft really use to win us over, not just their platform. In that vane, Google is perhaps the outright winner, as they don’t care what Android phone you buy, as long as you use Google Services and spend money in their Play Store, they’re happy. Microsoft has, in the past couple of years, realized that their own ecosystem isn’t strong enough to compete on the same level as Apple and Google, and so many of their services have become cross-platform. The same is true of Google’s Gmail and Maps offerings, but there’s one area that – aside from Apple’s own product, of course – was born to be cross-platform; activity tracking. We’ve moved on from an age of people simply downloading an app and getting out there, our runs and workouts have become ammunition on the familiar battleground that is capitalism, and it’s only getting worse.
When Google announced Google Fit a couple of years ago, it was a fairly unfinished product, and even to this day it remains limited and confusing to a lot of users. Android Wear hasn’t helped matters either, with few watches offering much besides exaggerated step counting to the mix. How good a product Google Fit is however, is irrelevant for the most part, as offering some sort of fitness service at all has become a necessary box to tick. Apple has one. Google has one. Microsoft has one. As devices like the Fitbit started to become genuinely viable business prospects, the ecosystem architects needed to tick the same box that Fitbit now floats of the stock exchange with. Depending on who you ask and what you need in an activity tracker, Google isn’t doing so well, and smaller independent options are being snatched up to be used in smaller, cross-platform battles between sports brands the world over.
I, personally, use a Microsoft Band day in and day out and I really enjoy Microsoft Health as a service. I’ve tried fitness trackers from Acer, Fitbit, Sony and Xiaomi and the only one I’ve stuck with more than a month or more is the Microsoft Band. The branding is horrible and “Microsoft Health” sounds more like a care plan for employees of the firm, but it gets the job done, and does it well. I use Microsoft Health to track Basketball workouts, weight lifting and long walks on the weekends, as well as my sleep. It’s really good for what I use it for, and it’s the only service that tracks all of this info that has made me feel guilty or provided any incentive to stick to something. All of the data seems realistic, my Band doesn’t tell me I’ve done a thousand steps around the house all day, for instance and will let me know when I’ve done next-to-nothing. The data is there for me to use on my Android device or online from any browser and it’s allowed me to genuinely see an improvement in heart rate and recovery times.
Microsoft’s torpedo out of nowhere regarding fitness tracking is a prime example of how this area has become a corporate battleground. I’m fairly confident that Microsoft have a decent device that’s realistic in tracking my activity, but at the end of the day it wouldn’t really matter. It’s another “hot” feature that Microsoft has to offer, and that means more money. Not just in the form of – admittedly fairly-pricey – trackers, but it’s also a sort of trojan horse into people’s lives as well. If I weren’t quite so tech-savvy, or just easily-led, I might become so impressed with Microsoft’s Health service that I’d start to consider a Windows 10 PC, a Windows Phone and so on. The same could be said of Apple’s Watch, as a smartwatch it features some pretty limited software and appalling battery life, but the fitness features make Google Fit look like a hobbyist project. Someone really into their fitness might go out and trade in their Android phone for an iPhone and grab an Apple Watch at the same time. Due to the high cost that’s not quite as likely, but it’s obviously what Apple were hoping for when they piled their time and money into developing a quality health platform.
As wearable technology takes off and becomes a mainstream product, fitness brands all over the world have had to wake up and play catch up. In order to do just that, they need to get a head start, achieved through the purchasing of smaller, previously-independent, fitness tracking apps. Billion-dollar sports brand, Under Armour, is the best example of this. They started off by purchasing MapMyFitness, and this time last year completed the purchase of MyFitnessPal and Endomondo disturbingly close to each other. This was an “ecosystem play” for Under Armour, and the firm now offers their own Under Armour Record app as well as hardware through a partnership with HTC. Those three apps are still available, but they’re prominently branded as Under Armour’s property, and it was the start of a trend. Popular app RunKeeper was recently purchased by shoe maker Asics and one of the most well-known fitness apps out there, Runtastic, has been owned by Adidas since last Summer.
This has created a culture of the big firms shipping the software – the platforms that Under Armour an Runtastic need to function – such as Apple, Google and Microsoft competing for large numbers of users, and smaller firms like Adidas, Asics, Fitbit, Under Armour and more all fighting for the leftovers. Make no mistake, while some of these apps and services can and do help people to stay fit or be a better version of themselves, it’s all about the money.
Adidas was perhaps a little late to the game with their 2015 purchase of Runtastic, despite having tried their own devices and platforms beforehand, they were lagging behind Nike’s Fuel offerings. The same can be said for Asics, it’d seem pretty obvious that a firm like that would have some sort of digital offering long ago. For these sports brands, the fight is fairly similar to Apple and Google’s eternal struggle; everything they offer is fairly familiar, so how do they set themselves apart from each other? You could say that Under Armour is winning that battle right now, offering more useful hardware and a much more comprehensive platform, but Adidas and Asics will no doubt be working to play catch up.
A new market means a new battleground, and fitness tracking is the latest staging ground. As the media all over the world start to push sugars as the ultimate evil and healthy eating as something-you-must-absolutely-start-to-do-or-be-condemned-in-the-company-of-your-friends it’s no wonder. Gone are the days of downloading a well-meaning, independent app that leverage the hardware in your phone to simply track your run. Now, it’s all data this and data that, with more features thrown at us each and every year, purely to secure more users and more cash. Fitbit seems to be doing pretty well out of all this, and with new devices like the Atla launching later this year, they’re one of the stronger cross-platform players. With the big sports brands getting involved however, that might not be the same in 2017 and beyond.
I’m not going to get into the question of how safe my fitness data is or what it’s being used for – as I have no proof to comment on either – but it’s clear all of this activity tracking has become a way of vying for new eyeballs and new money. I’m happy with my experience with the Microsoft Band and the software giant’s fitness platform, but I’ve only been with Microsoft for the past four months or so, there’s potential for me to jump ship later in the year. With so much of my data catalogued and locked away – my history, my progress, my achievements! – it’s less likely that I’ll move entirely to something compatible with Google Fit or go back to the Fitbit. Instead, it’s more likely that I’ll just buy the next band later this year, or perhaps the Band 2 should anything happen to my current tracker. This is what all of these firms are banking on. They want to hook us in and then keep us throwing money at them each couple of years or so. To the majority of users, all of this probably makes little to no difference, but the next time I fire up my Microsoft Band to track a session, someone at Redmond is probably happy this is one less person using an Apple Watch, Fitbit or whatever else.