The latest numbers from the International Data Corporation (or IDC) regarding the wearables market says that Chinese vendors such as Xiaomi and newcomer opponent XTC are challenging wearable brand names Samsung, Apple, and even Fitbit in the gadget space. Xiaomi has gone from a 5.7% wearable market share in 2014 to a 17.4% share in 2015, with a three-fold increase in wearable computers. Newcomer XTC is said to have pushed Samsung out of the top five vendors with its new smartwatch that is said to have sold 100,000 more devices than the Korean giant.
And with these types of numbers, it has been said that the Chinese vendors are challenging the leading brand names in the wearables space. Before Xiaomi and XTC are given victory crowns and “gold medals,” however, it is the numbers that merit some serious discussion. Upon looking at them in their proper context, however, the numbers aren’t as impressive as at first glance.
Fitness bands and smartwatches are different wearables, should be distinguished
This has always been my perspective on the wearables market, but I believe it’s worth saying: fitness bands and smartwatches should not be compared together. It’s no different than apples and oranges: yes, they’re fruits, but can you compare an orange and an apple in other ways? Of course not! Fitness bands and smartwatches are wearables, but they differ in their capabilities. While fitness bands are more fitness-centric and devoted to calories burned, miles walked, and distance traveled, smartwatches include these plus so much more: email, app notifications, calendar dates and appointments, and so on. Smartwatches have been thought of as computers on the wrist with good reason: they outperform fitness bands in functionality, and they should. If I’m going to wear a smartwatch on my wrist, I expect it to have more functionality than a $15 or $30 fitness band (no offense to inexpensive fitness bands).
Fitness bands and smartwatches are not the same and should be distinguished. If we look at Xiaomi’s numbers, from 5.7% to 17.4% in one year’s time, the Chinese vendor is discredited immediately if you consider that Xiaomi’s success is credited to the Mi Band and the Mi Band Pulse. The Mi Band and Mi Band Pulse are so named because they are fitness bands, not smartwatches. In other words, Xiaomi can’t beat a smartwatch maker such as Samsung, Apple, or others like Sony or LG even because Xiaomi has never released a smartwatch on the market. You can’t compare two wearables that are similar but not identical, then hail the fitness band maker the winner between itself and smartwatch makers. Again, it’s comparing apples to oranges.
Another case of comparing apples to oranges concerns Chinese vendor XTC (a subsidiary of BBK), whom IDC has named as the supplanter of Samsung, the company responsible for knocking Samsung from any top spot in the wearables market whatsoever. The problem with this assessment, however, is that the Gear S2 is a smartwatch for adults, while the XTC Y01, the newcomer’s watch shown above, is a phone watch for children according to the IDC (“the Y01, a children’s phone watch”). This is the equivalent of, to use an American comparison, of placing the Apple Watch in competition against a VTech, Leapfrog, or Fisher Price smartwatch. Yes, we’re sure that the XTC Y01, like the Fisher Price, Leapfrog, and VTech smartwatches are for kids, but kid smartwatches are not the same as adult smartwatches. The Gear S2 is for adults while the XTC Y01 is for children, two different age groups with different functionalities. Once more, it’s comparing apples to oranges.
As for the other numbers from manufacturers Fitbit and Garmin (Jawbone must be included in the “others” section since we don’t see it explicitly named), these are fitness band companies and their numbers should be separated from smartwatch manufacturers. The study failed to provide distinctions between smartwatch and fitness band manufacturers (or distinguish the sales numbers for companies that produce both wrist wearables), so we’re left with bloated numbers that don’t provide all that much insight into what consumers are going after. Fitbit is a fitness band maker, so the numbers tell us that the majority of worldwide consumers favor fitness bands – but it doesn’t tell us about the intense nature of the smartwatch market, for instance. Smartwatches are still in a state of infancy, even after two years and the introduction of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear in 2013, but it is growing (just take a look at Android Wear’s birth and progress since 2014).
Not all companies mentioned have cross-platform devices
It’s another obvious statement, but I’ll say it here anyway: not all manufacturers in the top (or even the bottom of wearable sales) are cross-platform. By cross-platform, I am referring to the ability to pair a wrist wearable with either Android or iOS, or Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Of course, Samsung’s Tizen OS throws in another mobile operating system worth considering too, but the point is that some of the companies mentioned have devices that run on limited platforms.
Take the Apple Watch, for instance. IDC seems to operate under the assumption that smartwatches and fitness bands should be compared together; if we compare them, however, it’s easy to see why Fitbit would win with the greatest market share: Fitbit offers cross-platform devices and doesn’t make smartphones, while Apple makes iPhones and designed its Apple Watch to be compatible with its own mobile OS (iOS). Fitbit has no stake in mobile OSes because it doesn’t make phones. Thus, offering cross-platform compatibility for Fitbit is an easy way to make money, whereas, should Apple offer the same for its Apple Watch (the Apple Watch pairs with Android or Tizen, for example), Apple may very well lose money on its iPhones because customers can take their Apple Watch and purchase a Samsung Galaxy S7, should they choose.
Cross-compatibility and open-sourced platforms have their appeal, but they often come at a cost for manufacturers who are committed to their own OS and design products to promote it. Samsung’s Gear S2 isn’t pairing well with the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, or Nexus 6, but, even at its best work, the Gear S2 won’t work with these in the same way that it will a Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge Plus, or a Galaxy Note 5 because of Samsung’s commitment to its Android devices and Tizen.
That’s not to say that cross-platform compatibility isn’t growing, however, but at this present time, Samsung’s Gear S2 is compatible with its own Android-powered Galaxy devices and its Tizen-powered Z1 and Z3. While Samsung has voiced its intention to make the Gear S2 iOS-compatible, the cross-platform compatibility isn’t out on the market yet for us to examine firsthand. Android Wear now has iOS compatibility, but we’ll see it firsthand with the Asus ZenWatch 2 when it is released. Unfortunately, the LG Watch Urbane LTE, Second Edition has been recalled by LG and US carriers, so we don’t know when or if it will ever be released again.
As it currently stands, fitness band makers tend to be cross-platform, but the current smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, and “others” such as Android Wear are limited to specific operating systems exclusively (Samsung being the exception with Tizen-powered smartwatches that work well with its Android handsets): Apple with iOS, Android Wear with Android. Again, it’s comparing cross-platform compatibility with platform exclusivity and wondering why Fitbit and Garmin have been so successful with their devices. If an individual wants to go back and forth between Android and iOS, and only fitness bands offer the option, is it hard to see why consumers would buy Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone instead of buying a Gear S2, Gear S, Moto 360, or an Apple Watch? Not really.
Some companies on the list are not truly “global” brands
Back to the Chinese vendors. XTC (owned by BBK) and Xiaomi are commended for their sales numbers until you weigh the numbers with their context. XTC, according to the IDC has sold its XTC Y01 child phone watch “exclusively within China, and with just one device.”
As for Xiaomi, the IDC says that during the quarter, Xiaomi “had more than 97% of its volumes shipping into China.”
These two statements reveal that XTC and Xiaomi may be Chinese brands, but they’re not truly global. If Xiaomi had more than 97% of its Mi bands shipping to Chinese customers, that means that (at most) only 3% of its sales arrived globally. Looking at the 3% of global sales, Xiaomi wouldn’t even make the top 5 if we weighed the company as a truly global brand. Would you consider Samsung or LG to be a top brand if they sold over 97% of their devices to their fellow Koreans? Would you still have a high respect for Apple if Apple sold over 97% of its devices to Americans only and Europeans, for example, trusted Samsung? The overwhelming sales numbers within China make this study look somewhat lopsided or intentionally so.
At the end of the day, just because your family votes you “most likely to succeed” in high school doesn’t mean you are the best pick for the title. In the same vein, it’s not that big of a deal for Chinese consumers to love Xiaomi because Americans also love Apple (but that doesn’t impress anyone). If the consumers that buy my product are my national countrymen in overwhelming, near 100% fashion, I’d not label my product a true global contender in any sense. With that said, articles praising Xiaomi’s “rise to no. 3 in the wearables market” should be recalled and taken down because the claim simply isn’t true.
Fitness bands and smartwatches differ in price; lower pricing makes the difference
Pricing is everything for consumers looking to try new products on the market, and the same can be said in the wearables market. Consumers don’t quite yet know what they’re meant to do with wearables, so the lower, budget-friendly pricing relieves the curiosity and helps consumers jump from the sidelines straight into the “ball game,” metaphorically speaking.
The same can be said when you’re making the mistake of comparing fitness bands to smartwatches. I can only think of 1 fitness band on the market that would warrant $200, and it’s Samsung’s Gear Fit. The price has since dropped down to $99 or less, but the price tag was justified by its curved AMOLED display (which had never been done in the fitness band market before). As for other fitness bands like Jawbone, Fitbit, and even Xiaomi devices, these devices are priced cheaply with the goal of getting you to invest in them. That’s not to say they’re not worth the price, but it is to say that they don’t possess the functionality of smartwatches (which means that, sans functionality, the high price tag for fitness bands is unjustified and just plain extortionist).
Of course, then, when it comes to investment, people will pay for budget-friendly devices with cross-platform compatibility. These two factors are winners, and the price tag tends to win out every time.
With that said, however, I am pleased to inform Android/iOS-interested consumers that the Android Wear-powered LG G Watch [is now on sale for $69.99], so you can not only pick up an Android Wear watch but also get Wi-Fi and Android and iOS compatibility at the same time. For $50, with more functionality than a Jawbone or a Fitbit, you can’t go wrong picking up this watch. The fact that it will get updates from Google (and frequently) means that you won’t buy a device that will go without updates until you purchase a new one. You may not want it or need it, but a $50 watch is still a cheaper (and more functional) purchase than that $99 Fitbit, correct?
As can be seen from the issues above, the numbers must be interpreted and, in this case, need re-interpreting to make sense of them. It goes without saying that Chinese vendors Xiaomi and XTC aren’t as much of a threat as they seem to be, with little competition within their respective places in China. On the other hand, the truly global brands find themselves with limiting OSes (for financial reasons). Finally, smartwatches and fitness bands should not be compared to one another, not in sales, manufacturers, or preferences. Different price points are another distinction that separates the two wrist wearables.
IDC understands all of these underlying factors, but their understanding begs the question: why produce a study that simply throws all these companies together without separating the companies that merited placement on the list (Fitbit) from those that didn’t? Xiaomi and XTC don’t deserve placement on the list because they aren’t global brands, as demonstrated from their sales and products.
I think the IDC should have separated kids smartwatches from adult smartwatches, and fitness bands from smartwatches. Something tells me the study would have touted quite different numbers in those two separate studies than what we’ve seen here.