The New Leader in Wearables

There has been a sea change within the wearables industry. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple looks to have grabbed the wearables unit sales crown from Fitbit this past holiday season. It's time to begin thinking about wearables not just as standalone devices for the wrist, but rather platforms containing a number of products designed for different parts of the body. In this environment, Apple has become the new wearables leader.

Change Is in the Air

Over the past few years, the wearables industry had come to revolve around two product categories targeting the wrist: 

  • Health & fitness trackers
  • Smartwatches

Fitbit and Apple have been the top two companies selling wearables in volume. While Fitbit's assortment of health & fitness trackers outsold Apple Watch in terms of unit sales, the higher-priced Apple Watch gave Apple the revenue edge. After initially positioning Apple Watch as a mini iPhone on the wrist, Apple changed strategies last year in an effort to close the unit sales gap between Fitbit and Apple Watch. Management shifted Apple Watch marketing more towards health & fitness while lowering the entry-level price and expanding the product line to include more fitness-oriented Watches. 

The ingredients for an interesting holiday quarter for the wearables industry seemed to be in place. The debate centered on whether or not Apple would be able to entice people to embrace smartwatches instead of dedicated health & fitness trackers. However, Fitbit had an early November surprise announcement. The company disclosed a sudden deterioration in customer demand in 3Q16, and the negative trends had continued into October. The slowdown caught Fitbit off guard. Management was forced to issue very weak financial guidance for the upcoming holiday shopping season. More worrying, management didn't seem to know what was driving the sudden decline in demand. While Apple Watch was a prime suspect, Fitbit has never publicly viewed Apple as a competitive threat.

Despite lowering sales expectations, Fitbit still ended up missing its holiday sales forecast. The company hit a brick wall in terms of sales growth. Demand for Fitbit products completely evaporated at the end of the year with the company seeing a 21% decline in unit sales in 4Q16. Just one year earlier, Fitbit had reported 55% unit sales growth. 

While Fitbit saw weakening consumer demand, other wearables players reported much more positive results. Apple reported record Apple Watch sales in 4Q16. Fossil and Garmin also saw promising smartwatch trends. (My Fossil and Garmin 4Q16 earnings analysis is available here and here, respectively.) Garmin even described a scenario of robust smartwatch demand during the holidays. While consumers turned away from Fitbit health & fitness trackers during the second half of 2016, smartwatches have been gaining momentum. 

By the Numbers

The shift in consumer preferences regarding fitness & health trackers and smartwatches is visible when comparing Fitbit and Apple Watch unit sales. As seen in Exhibit 1, Apple nearly closed the unit sales gap between Apple Watch and Fitbit last quarter. During 4Q16, Fitbit sold 6.5M devices at an average selling price of $85. Meanwhile, Apple sold 5.6M Apple Watches at an average selling price of $372. 

Exhibit 1: Fitbit vs. Apple Watch Unit Sales

Exhibit 1 would seem to suggest that despite significant sales trouble, Fitbit was still able to keep its title as the best-selling wearables company in the world. Upon closer examination, there is more to the story. Apple was not able to meet Apple Watch demand during the holiday quarter as Apple Watch Series 2 faced severe supply shortages. Meanwhile, Fitbit was stuck with elevated inventory levels throughout the holiday season. Accordingly, on a sell-through basis, Apple Watch and Fitbit demand was likely neck and neck. This is an astounding turn of events from the previous holiday quarter when Fitbit outsold Apple Watch by 1.7x.

A New Product

On a sell-through basis, Fitbit may have been able to just squeak by Apple Watch to retain the title of best-selling wearables company over the holidays. However, there is still a missing piece to the discussion. The definition of wearables has changed. This past holiday season saw the introduction of AirPods, Apple's second wearables product

After a two-month delay, Apple began selling AirPods in mid-December. When taking into account AirPods launch sales during the last two weeks of December, I estimate Apple sold more wearables devices than Fitbit during the holiday quarter.

Apple's 4Q16 Wearables Sales:

  • Apple Watch: 5.6M units (my estimate - details are available here)
  • AirPods: 1.0M units (my estimate - details are available here)
  • Total: 6.6M units

Note: This total does not include Beats headphones containing Apple's W1 chip. 

When taking into account AirPods sales, the sales data from Exhibit 1 looks a bit different. As seen in Exhibit 2, Apple sold more wearables than Fitbit for the first time last quarter. Considering how both Apple Watch and AirPods were supply constrained (AirPods are still severely supply constrained), it is responsible to assume Apple could have easily sold eight or nine million wearables devices last quarter. This would be 60% more than the number of Macs sold and 65% of iPad unit sales. 

Exhibit 2: Fitbit vs. Apple Watch and AirPods Unit Sales

Platform Play

On Apple's 1Q17 earnings call, Apple introduced a new way of describing Apple Watch and AirPods. Here's Tim Cook: 

"With AirPods off to a fantastic start, a strong full first year for Apple Watch, and Beats headphones offering a great wireless experience using the Apple-designed W1 chip, we now have a rich lineup of wearable products. Their design, elegance, and ease of use make us very excited about the huge growth potential for wearables going forward."

The wearables industry is rapidly turning into a platform play. The winners will be those companies offering a range of wearable devices. Apple Watch, AirPods, and W1 chip-equipped Beats headphones represent Apple's wearables platform. As seen in the following diagram, the wearables market is best viewed as a collection of distinct battles for real estate: wrists, ears, eyes, and body (i.e. clothing). At this point, the wrist and ears are the two areas ready for mass-market products. Additional battles for the eyes and body remain R&D projects at this point given design and technological barriers. 


Apple is currently the only company playing in at least two wearables geographies at scale (wrist and ears). Many are underestimating the benefits associated with this type of control over a wearables platform. Similar to how strong loyalty and high satisfaction have resulted in low churn within the iPhone installed base, satisfied Apple Watch owners are that much more likely to buy AirPods and vice versa. As consumers embrace a full suite of wearables products, it doesn't hurt Apple to have an existing user base of more than 800 million people. 

Changing Competition

The significant change found at the top of the wearables market with Apple overtaking Fitbit in terms of unit sales signals a broader shift within the industry. Consumers are gravitating toward greater utility on the wrist. Dedicated health & fitness trackers are displaying many of the same characteristics shown by cheap MP3 players at the beginning of the iPod era. Consumers are beginning to bypass cheap alternatives with limited functionality and reliability and instead value additional functionality. 

Fitbit's growing struggles provide a new perspective on how competition is unfolding in the wearables market. Instead of the battle existing between wearables companies, the true competition is found between wearables and non-wearables. Apple's primary wearables competitor isn't Fitbit, Garmin, Fossil, or Samsung. Instead, Apple is competing for the same wrist real estate as legacy watch and jewelry companies. Even bare wrists represent prime competition for Apple Watch. Going forward, this battle for real estate is only going to intensify and expand to the ears. 

A closer look at Fitbit's strategy would reveal the company misidentified its competition. Instead of looking at bare wrists and non-wearables as the competition, which would have led Fitbit to push much further and faster up market in terms of capability and functionality, Fitbit assumed its only competition was multi-purpose smartwatches retailing for four or five times the price of Fitbit. Management assumed the dedicated health & fitness tracker and smartwatch segments were distinct enough to coexist and appeal to different target markets. In reality, the pricing gap between the two categories had been rapidly shrinking, and the two product categories were increasingly chasing after the same group of people, which only made matters worse for Fitbit. The company got caught with an inadequate product line that didn't resonate with consumers. This would explain Fitbit's recent decision to reduce its product line in 2017 and instead go up market with its own smartwatch.

As for Apple, the company is showing all of the signs of placing a very big bet on wearables. Not only is management completely on board with wearables, but the company's Industrial Design group has been moving towards wearables for years. As seen in Exhibit 3, the wearables segment represents a key growth opportunity for Apple. In 2016, there were approximately 50M wearable devices shipped (not including cheap step and sleep trackers). This compares to the nearly 175M tablets and 1.5 billion smartphones shipped. It is only a matter of time before wearables outsell tablets. 

Exhibit 3: Wearables, Tablets, and Smartphones Unit Sales (2016)

The body represents a new battleground in tech. A vibrant wearables platform consisting of Apple Watch, AirPods, and Beats headphones has positioned Apple as the new leader in the wearables market. While Apple still faces various risks and challenges in the wearables space when it comes to adoption, the amount of progress seen in just the past two years bodes well for wearables playing a pivotal role in our lives.

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