Could the iWatch crack the wearables riddle by merging the smartwatch with the activity tracker?

By James Robinson , written on May 5, 2014

From The News Desk

Apple’s iWatch sits currently in the mythic twilight between rumor and reality. It is obviously happening, but we’re far enough away from it being a real thing that we can keep romanticizing how awesome it might be. Six months away from commercial release, at the very least, the rose-tinted iWatch hype looks like this: the Fitbit as you’ve always wanted, matched with a smartwatch you’ll actually use

New from Reuters this morning are reports that Apple has been on a medical technology hiring binge for the iWatch. Reportedly, Apple is poaching medical professionals and hardware experts like its a two-for-one sale on Amazon with free shipping. Most of these new hires are said to be in the medical sensor technology space, out of companies like Vital Connect, Masimo Corp, Sano Intelligence and O2 MedTech, known collectively for things like tracking oxygen saturation and respiratory function, heart rate and body temperature, and manufacturing sensors themselves. Apple has even gone as far as looking at non-invasive glucose tracking, but apparently sees that as a longer endgame.

The CEO of Masimo Corp Joe Kiani sounded kind of mad when he talked to Reuters, noting that he’d lost people to Apple who had access to “deep wells” of trade secrets. “They are just buying people,” he commented.

Late last year, Shasta Ventures’ Rob Coneybeer commented that the “iPhone moment” for wearable technology was still a year or two away. I’ve quoted it before, but I think the sentiment is apt. Apple obviously sees that the answer to solving this market exists somewhere between smartwatches and activity trackers. There’s a market out there for each, but there are major problems on either side. According to a report in January by Endeavor Partners, one in ten Americans over 18 and one-quarter of all 25-34 year-olds owns an activity tracker. However, as Endeavor reports, more than half the people who have bought an activity tracker no longer use it. One-third of all users had ditched it within six months.

Meanwhile, the smartwatch has generated more hype than sales heat. The Samsung Galaxy Gear shipped 800,000 units, but was largely panned. There were reports that as many as 30 percent of all sales through Best Buy were returned. The Gear Fit debuted last week, and while it tried to bridge the gap between a smartwatch and an activity tracker, reviewers commented that it was really a watered-down version of each.

A new generation of consumers has grown up with a phone in their pocket and nothing on their wrist. The smartwatch hasn’t offered enough to reverse that behavior. The health benefits of the activity tracker have offered enough vto get people to try it out, but past a pedometer its sleep and energy burn readings are inexact. We've forked out, but we haven't fallen in love.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is on the record as being bullish on medical sensors, noting that any device that is going to find a home on our wrist has to be exceptional. The iWatch might be a colossal disappointment yet, but if it can bridge the smartwatch and activity tracker markets and actualize these medical ambitions, it could be the first product to solve the riddle of wearable technology.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]