In the Real World, Wearables Still Outpace Smartphones

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) argued that smartphone apps are just as successful at tracking steps and counting calories as expensive wearable devices. With the launch of the Apple Watch just around the corner, this question will become more than academic for millions of consumers. Are wearables already obsolete?

The JAMA study compared the most popular smartphone apps and the most popular wearable devices to test how accurate and consistent they were for 14 adults walking on a treadmill. It revealed similar results for all, leading the researchers to argue that Americans may not need to spend $100 or more on a new device when they already have a smartphone.

This is a compelling argument – up to a point. The subjects in the JAMA study did the same thing for the same amount of time: they walked with their phones and trackers always on their bodies. Unfortunately, for most of us, the reality of daily life rarely fits this mold.

In a controlled environment, smartphones might be the simplest way to track our activity and movement. They are cost effective (most of us already own one), and they will likely remain the most widely-used way to track basic information.

But don’t give up your place in line at the Apple store, or throw away your Fitbit, Jawbone, or FuelBand just yet. There are a few significant reasons why smartphones cannot truly compete with wearable devices for activity measurement.

Despite their many positives, smartphones are not “passive” devices; you have to remember to use them. We are likely to forget our phones at home, leave them charging on our desks, or keep them in our bags or purses while doing most of our daily activities.

We don’t have that problem with most wearables. They’re passive, meaning that you put on your wearable, and it continues to track your activity whether you think about using it or not. Phones continue to under-report your exact usage with unpredictable variances. They can’t, and likely will never be able to, collect the aggregate of your activity on a daily basis.

To take it one step further, smartphone apps will also never be able to compete when it comes to “specialized” activities. Swimmers will not take a phone into the pool with them to track their stroke; they will use a waterproof wearable. Bikers and runners want a device with GPS to observe their route and calculate mileage. Phones can do this, but endurance athletes also want heart rate monitors, and phones are nowhere near that capability.

It is true that the specialty device market is not massive and smartphones are great, especially for beginners. People who have never used a fitness tracker in the past will see their merit, and will get a rough idea of how much they move (or should be moving). But the fact remains that there are crucial areas where wearables far outpace smartphones – and with Apple expected to produce an initial run of 5 million watches, we can expect the number of wearable users to continue increasing.