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Stuart Dredge: Digital fitness will boom, but don’t forget the ethics

Stuart Dredge Trends

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In tech circles, fitness-tracking devices are already a common sight, from Fitbits peeking out of pockets to FuelBands dangling from wrists.

So common, in fact, that it’s tempting to think these devices are already mainstream. They’re not, but that’s exactly why this is such an interesting time for this area.

A study published by research firm NPD Group in January found that 32% of Americans had heard of wearable fitness trackers, with 28% of those people —­ i.e. 9% of the population —­ saying they’re likely to buy one.

A niche, for now, but already a lucrative one. NPD estimates that the US digital fitness market was worth $330m in 2013, while IHS Technology thinks that global sales of sports, fitness and activity-tracking devices will grow from $2.2bn in 2014 to $2.8bn in 2019.

“The market is now large enough to accommodate a variety of products aimed at all levels of athlete —­ from serious performance-minded consumers to hobbyists — a sure sign of maturity,” said NPD’s executive director Ben Arnold in January.

IHS also estimates that 84m of these gadgets were being used in 2013, and that this will rise to 120m by 2019. Depending how you define the category, though, by 2019 this may look like a hugely conservative estimate.

Apple HealthKit © Apple

Why? At its WWDC conference earlier this month, Apple announced HealthKit (photo) as part of its upcoming iOS 8 software. It’s a central stash of an iOS user’s health and fitness data, drawn from the sensors on their device and the apps they’re using to track activity and other bodily functions.

“Developers have created a lot of apps for monitoring your health, but up to now the information gathered by those applications lives in silos,” said Apple’s SVP of software engineering, Craig Federighi. “But now you can with HealthKit; a single place where applications can gather the data.”

When iOS 8 drops, every iPhone will be a fitness-tracking device. As a reminder, in 2013 alone, the company sold 146.1m iPhones according to its financial results. Throw in the existing iPhone 5s with its M7 motion co-processor, and Apple alone could eclipse IHS’s device predictions.

Google, meanwhile, is reportedly working on its equivalent of HealthKit. Forbes reported this month that its Google Fit service will perform a similar role aggregating data from the fitness and health-tracking apps of Android users, and will be unveiled at the company’s I/O conference in late June.

Apple and Google will help make this technology mainstream. A survey last December by the Consumer Electronics Association claimed that interest in buying wearable fitness devices had quadrupled in 2013 in the US; but that’s from just 3% of the population to 13%.

Now we’re fast approaching a time when every new iPhone and Android smartphone is a fitness-tracking device, capable of gathering activity data, sharing it with third-party apps and pulling data back from them.

FitBit devices

In one sense, it’s a challenge for companies like Fitbit (photo), who make dedicated fitness-tracking hardware. Nike has already been the subject of speculation suggesting it will pull back from FuelBands in favour of software and services with long-term partner Apple.

In another sense, if iOS and Android act as an entry point to fitness tracking for hundreds of millions of people, that could provide a strong base for digital health companies of all stripes;­ hardware, software and/or services alike.

The obvious elephant in the room is Apple and Google’s own hardware ambitions. Apple’s potential launch of an ‘iWatch’ has been speculated about for several years. The latest rumours pointing to it being finally unveiled this autumn, with HealthKit as one of the final pieces in its launch puzzle.

LG G Watch

Google, meanwhile, is taking more of a platform approach with its Google Wear initiative, which takes Android to wearable devices. LG has already shown journalists a smart watch called G Watch running the software (photo), and expects to ship it in July.

It’s already clear that fitness-tracking is going to be one of the key selling points for smart watches, although they too will be a niche for the near future: ABI Research estimates that 510,000 of the devices will shipped in the first quarter of 2014, compared to 2.4m activity-tracker gadgets.

“Activity trackers are currently the most viable consumer electronics wearable device category, because they have a clear use case that cannot be matched by smartphones, in contrast to smartwatches,” said senior practice director Nick Spencer. “End users have been happy to ditch their watches and use smartphones to tell the time, so extending smartphone functions to the watch is a weak use case and retrograde step,” adds Spencer. Turning the latter into fitness-trackers, though, may be a sensible strategy.

It’s an exciting time for the digital fitness space and the startups within it. But the anticipated burst of innovation will need to be accompanied by serious and public debate about the ethical and business issues around dealing with what is, after all, people’s most personal data.

Questions? Just a few. For example, who owns the data generated by fitness-tracking gadgets and apps, and what happens to it when (for example) the startup gathering it is acquired, or shuts down?

Moves app

A taste of the potential controversies here came when Facebook bought Finnish startup ProtoGeo in April, after it notched up 4m downloads of its Moves fitness-tracking app (photo)  on Android and iOS.

“The Moves experience will continue to operate as a standalone app, and there are no plans to change that or commingle data with Facebook,” explained ProtoGeo, to head off concerns about people’s activity histories (including location data) being used by Facebook.

Within weeks, the Moves app’s privacy policy was changed to state that it would be sharing information with its new parent company. Facebook’s position appeared to be that ‘share’ was different from ‘commingle’; ­ factually correct, perhaps, but still an argument to make privacy campaigners uneasy.

As more fitness startups sell up to internet giants (or go bust and sell their assets); as insurance companies invest in and/or acquire companies in this space; and as governments, health authorities and even employers take a greater interest in this sector, public debate will be essential.

A recent EU ruling on the “right to be forgotten” by Google’s search engine has been making headlines recently. Give it a few years, and there may be arguments about the right to have your inactivity or chips’n’cider consumption forgotten if your insurance company comes knocking for your data.

More questions surround the portability of your health data. Apple’s HealthKit and its companion Health app have the makings of an accessible, user-friendly digital health ecosystem. But what happens if you switch from iOS to Android?

Recent coverage of iMessages going missing for switchers should spark questions about exporting data from HealthKit in the future — and, of course, similar questions for Google, and any fitness app that you might want to ditch at some point for a better rival.

If we become more health-literate thanks to our smartphones, smart watches and fitness gadgets, what does that mean for healthcare providers?

In 2014, companies of all sizes are grappling with the challenges of the Bring Your Own Device era, where employees¹ personal devices are more powerful than the ones supplied by work, with apps that are slicker, more regularly-updated but (possibly) more insecure than the software approved by their IT department.

Similar dynamics may apply to healthcare, where patients have powerful diagnosis tools in their pockets, generating masses of data. Figuring out how that interfaces with the systems and practices of established healthcare is a fearsomely complex yet important challenge to solve.

The technological innovation around digital fitness in 2014 is dizzyingly exciting. But as marvellous as sensor-packed gadgets and apps packed with pretty graphs are, we can’t afford to ignore the ethical challenges around them.

The more we quantify ourselves, the more we must also count the potential costs of this trend, and make sure they don’t outweigh the benefits.


This is the first in a series of posts for LeWeb Blog, on key tech trends to be explored at future events. Find out more about LeWeb Trends on our news curation page, here.

 Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, covering apps and technology for The Guardian, and entertainment technology for Music Ally. He notably interviewed Nest’s Tony Fadell at LeWeb’13 Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.