Survival of the Fittest

New players heat up competition in the wearables market

The rise of wearables was a major story in the tech world in 2020. As some product categories struggled to weather the storm from the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting consumer uncertainty, smartwatches and fitness trackers proved extremely robust.

Companies including Apple, Samsung and Garmin highlighted strong performances for their wearables over the course of the year and gave confident projections for 2021. At CCS Insight, we also raised our forecast for the global wearables market, indicating that 239 million smartwatches and fitness trackers will ship during the year, a rise of 24% (see Fit for the Pandemic).

It seems that a lot of players share our optimism, given how quickly new products and even new companies are entering the wearables market. This is especially true for Chinese device-makers, which seem to be releasing new devices at an ever-increasing rate.

The past few months have seen Huawei unveil its Watch Fit Elegant, Xiaomi reveal two new editions of its Mi Watch and an updated Mi Band, Realme launch the Watch S, and Honor confirm global availability of its Band 6. Alongside this, Huami has overhauled its brand, renaming itself Zepp Health in a bid to build brand awareness globally and attract more customers. And this isn’t to mention OnePlus, which joined the scene with its Watch last week, ending months of speculation.

As overwhelming as this rhythm of device launches can feel, most of the devices that have landed recently haven’t hogged much of the limelight, because there often appears to be very little to separate them out. In fact, at the lower end of the market, wearable devices increasingly seem to be much of a muchness.

Low-cost and mid-range smartwatches — anything up to £200 — typically offer a suite of health- and fitness-tracking features, with on-board GPS and blood oxygen tracking quickly becoming commonplace, along with bright and colourful touch screens and strong battery life of about a week. They’re impressive, affordable and easy to use, and my recent experiences with Huawei’s Watch Fit Elegant backs this up. It’s a very competent all-rounder that, at £110, is very hard to fault.

The new OnePlus Watch should seem like a big deal, as it’s the company’s first foray into wearables. But despite the noise OnePlus has made about it, the watch feels unremarkable, because it shares a very similar set of specifications with almost every other wearable at the same price — £149 at launch. Beyond some integration with other parts of the OnePlus portfolio, which will make it a good choice for the company’s existing customers, the watch fails to stand out from the crowd. Not that it’s a bad-looking watch by any means; it just loses its shine in a crowded marketplace.

It’s only in the premium tier of devices, like the Apple Watch Series 6 or Samsung Galaxy Watch3, that you see a real difference in the feature list. These companies have been far more successful at gaining regulatory approval for health-tracking features such as electrocardiogram and blood pressure measurements, in addition to things like support for more apps, helping to set themselves apart from rivals.

What does this all mean? Well, for consumers, it’s arguably never been a better time to buy a wearable. There’s a multitude of affordable, capable watches and fitness trackers available, as well as more premium offerings for those who want the bleeding edge of health tracking.

For makers of wearables, the growing market certainly offers optimism, but as more and more devices fight for the same space it’s harder than ever to find a clear point of differentiation. The competition may only intensify if rumours are true and Google is indeed making a serious comeback after completing its acquisition of Fitbit. As rivals fight for dominance in the wearables market, standing out from the crowd has never been tougher.