A decade in, the "Quantified Self" is still more hope than reality

By Michael Carney , written on March 20, 2015

From The News Desk

Ever since Wired editor Kevin Kelley first coined the term “Quantified Self,” organizing a meetup of interested lifehackers and relentless self-improvers in 2007, the world at large – and the technology industry more specifically – have been predicting the rise of a global quantified self movement. More recently, the industry has turned its attention toward a search for the killer wearable tracking device – one hardware product that would take the category from niche and novelty, to mainstream and must-have.

After nearly a decade of hope, are we really any closer to that promised land?

Surely there’s never been more attention paid to “wearables” than in recent weeks, first in the run up and then in the wake of the Apple Watch announcement. Such is Apple’s ability to cast a spotlight on any category it enters. What’s become clear under these bright lights is that, at least from a business perspective, and seemingly from a consumer desirability perspective as well, wearables remain more promise than delivery.

This was never more clear than in a scathing expose published by Fortune this January, chronicling the trials and tribulations of Jawbone, a once beloved 16-year-old hardware company that has shifted its focus more and more toward activity tracking and consumer wearables. Today, Jawbone is still struggling to make a profit and is seeking new funding just to make good on its existing debts.

The clear category leader in activity trackers, including wristbands and pocket-carried pedometers, is Fitbit. Founded in 2007, Fitbit claims nearly 70 percent of the fitness tracker market. At 19 percent market share as of 2013, according to Mobile Health News, Jawbone is playing catchup in a wristband tracking category that it pioneered. And this was before Nike left the market, conceding its 10 percent market share position.

Looking beyond market share, however, the overall size of the activity tracker market today remains small, relative to say that of smartphones, or in earlier hit product categories like digital cameras or MP3 players.

That points us to real question amid this landscape of glorified pedometers and smartphone second screens: Have any of these companies introduced a device that is truly must-have, or that can cross the chasm from tech early adopters and serious performance athletes to the masses? At the moment, the answer would have to be, no.

It’s not that consumers don’t want to know this information. According to Pew Research Center, 69 percent of adults track their health or the health of others, and 21 percent of those do so using some sort of hardware or software technology. Gartner forecasts worldwide shipments of 65 million units for “wearable electronic devices for fitness” in 2015. This might seem like a lot, but it’s actually a decrease from the earlier forecasts, which were 70.2 and 73 million in 2014 and 2013, respectively. A 2014 survey of 24,000 individuals in 24 countries conducted by Accenture found that 8 percent of people currently own a “fitness wearable,” while 12 percent plan to purchase one in the next year, 17 percent within three years, and 11 percent within five years.

The core challenge facing the quantified self movement is that great data isn’t enough. As rational creatures, it’s in our nature as humans to want to collect, analyze, and interpret the information around us. The problem is, the devices in the market today, and the software that accompanies them, merely handle the collection portion of this puzzle. Far too much of the analytical heavy lifting is left to the end user. Owners of activity trackers, sleep monitors, heart-rate monitors, and the like are left saying, “So what? What do I do with this information?"

“For many consumers, the question still is, ‘What does this mean to me. What should I do with that data?’” says Fitbit investor Jeff Clavier, Founder and Managing Partner of SoftTech VC. “Our acquisition of Fitstar is about getting people more help around the ‘So what?’ of data.”

Unlike smart watches, Clavier points to the fact that activity tracking wristbands are priced to be impulse purchases. This has given Fitbit and others the freedom to experiment and iterate on their designs without torpedoing their brands or the appeal of the entire category as a result. At the price tiers occupied by smart watches and more exotic devices like Google Glass, there’s much less forgiveness. True as this may be, for many consumers $100 to $150 is still a stretch for a product for which they can’t answer the question, ‘Why do I need this?’

Like many other technology obsessives and athletes, I’ve personally spent the last several years hoping that a quantified self company or product would emerge to help end users make sense of the data that we’re all collecting around ourselves. For example, it’s one thing to know you got a below-average quality of sleep last night. It’s entirely another thing to know what the implications of that fact are on weight gain, critical reasoning skills, and energy levels, both in the short- and long-term. Then, armed with this contextual information, what can someone do to improve their sleep? Is it possible to connect various data sources like fitness and activity tracking, dietary tracking, heart-rate monitoring, and so on to pinpoint the cause of sleep issues and suggest a fix?

Surely the answer to these questions is yes. But creating a product that delivers such answers in an accessible and affordable format to consumers is no easy feat. It’s not that Fitbit, Jawbone, Apple HealthKit, MapMyFitness, and others aren’t trying to solve these problems. But the truth is, until they do, the majority of wearable devices sold will continue to end up abandoned by their users after just a few short months.

Fitbit may not have reached the promised land of delivering a true mass market consumer wearable, but the company has done the best job of any in the industry of convincing us that it’s possible. Clavier points to its focus on simplicity and solving universal rather than niche problems as the key to its success to date. The company’s internal motto is, “Mass market. Mass appeal. Mass Usage.” It has also helped that Fitbit’s products have proven more reliable than those of its closest competitors, many of which have faced recalls or high rates of return. The result has been the foundation of a trusted brand and a loyal community of users.

“People who failed were too focused on verticals, and sometimes [were] too expensive,” Clavier says. “A lot of new devices have failed to penetrate middle America. The question is what bit of information or new experience do these devices unlock. One other thing that I think [Fitbit has] gotten right from the beginning is the community. Getting people to activate devices and invite friends to share results has created a stickiness.”

Simplicity may have gotten Fitbit to this point, but it may not be enough to make the company the “Apple of wearables,” long term. Like any personal improvement endeavor, such as diet or exercise, the only way to get the average person to change their routine and stick with it is to make the change either incredibly non-intrusive (basically invisible), or incredibly rewarding. It’s the reason crash diets and hyper-aggressive fitness bootcamps rarely produce lasting results. On the other end of the spectrum are today’s wearables and fitness trackers which are not overly intrusive – although some people find them uncomfortable or not fashionable enough for everyday wear – but at the same time offer little in the way of rewards to incentivize continued usage. Again, knowing you didn’t sleep well or that you didn’t move much yesterday isn’t nearly as satisfying as sleeping great today or looking in the mirror and liking the body that you see looking back.

Despite these current shortcomings, there is hope for the quantified self category. Apple’s entrance into the category, not only with the Apple Watch, but more importantly with its Healthkit data-sharing platform, is a seminal moment. Also, as technology continues to get smaller and less expensive, we are seeing sensors embedded in more products, like apparel. This should lead to richer data and, hopefully, more actionable outputs from quantified self software, in the long term. But at present, smart apparel is an even more niche and slower growing category than traditional hardware wearables.

One challenge facing many of the pure-play wearables companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, and MisFit, are the economies of hardware production. It’s incredibly difficult to build a successful business selling consumer hardware. Just ask HP and Dell. In the hardware business, scale is your friend. Components get cheaper, while manufacturing and fulfillment get more efficient at larger scale. It’s one reason why Apple is so tough to compete with today. But for relatively new entrants like Jawbone and Fitbit, simply eking out any profit is a tall order.

“If you can get to scale – meaning millions of SKUs – you can do well with just hardware,” Clavier says. “But it’s still difficult to go beyond 50 percent gross margins. In software gross margins can be 80-90 percent. And the marginal cost of delivering more software is zero.” Speaking of the challenges of manufacturing and distribution, he adds, “It’s difficult for new entrants. Sure, you can always be better, cheaper, more functional – but you can’t compete with the economies of scale, brand recognition, and retail distribution. Fitbit is sold in more than 39,000 stores today.”

This is another reason that this software layer becomes so important. Though not easy, the clearest path to sustainability in the quantified self category would seem to be layering a subscription software offering on top of hardware sales. No company has managed to build a meaningful business selling quantified self software. But it seems inevitable as the industry moves forward. But first, someone will need to build the kind of actionable and value-added platform that is sorely lacking in the space today.

The challenge for anyone placing software at the center of their monetization strategy will be identifying a set of features that have both mass market appeal and are worth paying a premium to access. Clavier points to Dropcam as another hardware manufacturer which pulled this off, offering its users free cloud DVR storage at the outset, but then asking them to pay to retain access to this functionality over time.

“They had a fantastic attach-rate,” Clavier says. It’s not clear at this point what that magic feature will be for the activity tracking space.

One challenge with solving this riddle for the quantified self sector is the latter half of that moniker: self. These are highly personal and individual problems we’re trying to solve. Why one person’s body is behaving in a certain way with regard to sleep, weight loss, energy, stress, or any other trackable biomarker is likely very different than why another person is experiencing the same symptoms. Put another way, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for health. Improving sensors and the use of big data will likely help the industry unlock the keys to answering these key questions about how and why each of us tick. But we’re not quite there yet.

The activity tracking devices we’ve seen to date have been pretty limited in functionality, and in many cases, output data of dubious accuracy. On the other end of the spectrum are so-called smart watches, which too often try to be all things to all people, but rarely excel in any one thing. Some of the shortcomings are limited by today’s technology, including centrally, battery life. Companies could produce more sophisticated devices, but they would either need to be enormous or recharged every few hours. When it comes to shelling out hundreds of dollars and changing your daily routine, most consumers are demanding a more compelling offering than the market has put forth.

Even after nearly a decade in the space, relative upstarts like Fitbit and Jawbone face an uphill climb to overcome the brand and platform advantages of giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Samsung. But if the era of Quantified Self is truly on the horizon, the rewards for winning this battle will more than justify the risk.

The nirvana for wearables enthusiasts and lifehackers would be a near-invisible device that monitors a wide array of bodily signals and then delivers real time feedback about what changes the wearer should make for optimum health and wellness. Then again, for cynics and conspiracy theorists, that sounds like an Orwellian nightmare. Somewhere out there is a happy medium that will unlock the obvious potential of this category.

We all stand to be better versions of ourselves with the right information and the right feedback. But that’s a hopeful promise for some day down the road. Today it’s just a bunch of useless data.

[Editor’s note: The Go On With Your Quantified Self series is being sponsored by New Relic, so you’ll only see their ads around “Go On With Your Quantified Self” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. New Relic had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

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