wearables

Xiaomi started off as a smartphone-maker that offered well-designed products for a fraction of the cost of its better-known competitors. Then it released a smart television set that led Pando to label it “one of the world’s most interesting tech companies.” Today it took another step forward with the Mi Band, a fitness band that also acts as an authenticator to unlock a smartphone without a password. It claims a 30-day battery life and only costs $13.

That’s a much lower price than comparable fitness trackers from Fitbit and Jawbone, neither of which offer devices with the same potential battery life or authentication features as the Mi Band. Xiaomi doesn’t just release smartphones, television sets, or fitness bands that can meet the needs of most consumers — it announces remarkably cheap products that make others seem too greedy.

In a way, however, Mi Band’s remarkably low price could be a red flag — not because of anything Xiaomi has done. But remember Fitbit gave all those people rashes? As Pando’s James Robinson wrote a few months ago,

The USCPSC release includes some interesting data on the scope of the problem. All told, 9,900 people reported to Fitbit that the Force had caused them skin irritation, 250 of which included reports of blistering. Blistering. From a glorified pedometer. It’s not far off from a pharmaceutical that solves a relatively benign medical condition, but lists death as a possible side effect.

For the past few weeks, Fitbit’s response has been to try to marginalize this problem. In a statement it released Thursday afternoon, the company said, “the reactions reported by a small percentage of Force users were likely the result of allergic contact dermatitis” – a comment equivalent to admitting a problem in one breath while also saying it is no big deal.

The blistering controversy was enough to make me think twice about wearing my Fitbit Flex even though I knew the problem was confined to the Fitbit Force wristbands. If a company like Fitbit can suffer these kinds of problems despite years of experience with fitness trackers and a $99 price tag, what kinds of problems might people experience with Mi Band, a cheap product made by a company that is just starting to dabble with wristbands that cost right around $13?

The Force hasn’t just left a mark on its wearer’s wrists — it’s also left a mark on the fitness tracking market as a whole. Xiaomi will either suffer a similar fate or avoid the issue with its first fitness band that costs a fraction as much as its less-capable forebears. Either way, someone in the market will be embarrassed.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]