Apple Watch vs. Fitbit vs. Garmin: the battle for your fitness

Bernardo Montes de Oca
September 7, 2021

Smartwatches are here to stay, and the Apple Watch is the most popular. But the competition is tough, especially on the fitness side.

Every day, we hear that we should walk more, watch what we eat, and work out. So, some of us need to keep track. Fitness wearables exist as far back as 2003. But as more and more people got into exercise, competition has increased.

And, when it comes to fitness smartwatches, three brands have made a name for themselves. Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin have vastly different backgrounds, but they all want to be your fitness tracker. So, let's read about this interesting battle.

The Apple Watch takes the world by storm.

Every new Apple product comes with detractors. And the Apple Watch was no different. But, some of the arguments were solid. For example, when it came out in 2015, the CEO of Tag Heuer, Jean-Claude Biver, said: "can you repair it in 80 years? No, because it won't work anymore."

But the future wasn't Apple's goal. Instead, it was the present. So though many were excited about the idea, its launch wasn't perfect. First of all, it wasn't cheap. The price ranged from $350 to $550, and a special edition worth, get this, $10,000. This one, of course, didn't sell well.

Also, some apps were slow, and notifications regularly failed. As a result, users found themselves missing messages and emails. But, still, iOS fans loved the watch. And, the stats proved it. The first quarter of the Apple Watch's launch claimed 75% of global smartwatch sales.

A blue Apple Watch on top of a table

It set the standard for smartwatches and watches in general. In just five years, the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watchmaking industry. But, notice we haven't mentioned fitness. That's because, from the start, the Apple Watch didn't aim for it.

Apple wanted a mass market. Still, that's not to say they lagged in this department, as its fitness tracking was one of the best and easiest to use. Others, however, wanted to challenge its dominance.  

Garmin was the military brat that challenged the Apple Watch

Originally called ProNav, Garmin was the brainchild of Gary Burrell and Min Kao. Both had experience in military electronics, especially radio and avionics.

Burrett and Kao believed that GPS had plenty of uses outside the military. So, after raising $4 million, they left their respective jobs and founded ProNav, in 1986.

From boating to aviation, rescue, and construction, ProNav mainly focused on GPS applications. As a result, the company thrived in these niche markets. But, after rebranding to Garmin, a contraction of both their names, the founders noticed that wearables were becoming ever more popular.

Garmin created the Forerunner in 2003, which allowed users to track key fitness aspects like heart rate, distance, and calories.

Yes, it was bulky and had short battery life. But it was one of the first devices aimed at athletes. Thanks to top-of-the-line GPS technology, triathletes and long-distance runners loved the devices.

Smartwatches were the next logical step. But their goal was not only to cater to athletic needs but also to provide everyday tools like emails, texting, and others.

Garmin launched new products every two years, constantly improving and adding more features. Now, you can even find them with Spotify connection, Bluetooth, and contactless payment.

While the Apple Watch targeted the mass market, Garmin created rugged products for adventure seekers. But one small company wanted to target ordinary people who loved exercise.

Fitbit: the young, small but scrappy fitness company

Fitbit is a classic underdog story. The company was born in 2007 and, to convince investors, founders James Park and Eric Friedman had very little to show.

Their idea was a small device that told the user about steps, calories, and distance. It¡s important to add that their mockup was crude: they had to present a wooden box and some circuitry. But, they believed in their brand. As a brand, Fitbit caught on. In an early sales pitch, they hoped for 50 preorders and ended up getting 2,000.

The challenge was that neither founder had manufacturing experience. So, at first, the company struggled to come up with an efficient manufacturing process. As a result, both Friedman and Park have said that Fitbit came close to going out of business seven times.

The first Fitbit was rudimentary. It was a clip-on that you placed on your collar or pants. But, back then, this was brand new tech, and people loved it. In 2009, they had 25,000 orders, with more on the way.

An original fitbit next to a coin
The first Fitbit was not a watch (Source: WSJ)

Two years later, Fitbit included a strap and a digital clock. There was even phone connectivity but no messaging or email. That's because Fitbit was obsessed with one goal: health.

Their heartbeat monitors were so good they even appeared in medical studies from the Mayo Clinic.

Plus, both founders loved data: the more, the better. Fitbit even had plans to use it as part of diagnosis and treatment. But this obsession meant that their products were too basic to be called smartwatches.

Fitbit’s slow evolution into smartwatches

When the Apple Watch entered the market, Fitbit didn't adapt quickly enough. The company launched its smartwatch, the Fitbit Blaze, in late 2016, almost two years later. There were some sales. But, ironically, as they launched their smartwatch, their fitness product sales took a hit.

The problem was that the Blaze didn't come close to the Apple Watch. So while Apple dominated, Fitbit hovered around 3rd or 4th in sales. And that's when Google comes in. The giant wanted in on the wearable sector and bought Fitbit for $2.1 BN.

Fitbit had some advantages, like sleep tracking, which Apple introduced only in 2020. But, the move proved risky.

The smartwatch market becomes competitive.

Since the Apple Watched launched, it has consistently remained at the top of sales. Meanwhile, Garmin and Fitbit have struggled to gain some ground. So does this mean the Apple Watch is the best? Well, that's up to you to tell us. So what do you think the best wearable is?

It's not like nobody buys the other brands. For example, 2020 was a good year for Garmin when it managed third place in global sales. Meanwhile, Fitbit's best year was in 2018, when it placed third in sales.

But, despite the hype over Fitbit's new smartwatch, the Versa, Google's purchase didn't help Fitbit. It went from third sales in Q3 2019 to dropping out of the top five by Q1 2020, managing to climb to fourth place in late 2020.

Still, the competition gets more challenging each day. First of all, giants like Samsung are still strong. But then, other companies are also rushing to get into the market, like Xiaomi, Huawei, Titan, and even Fossil.

Controversies surrounding smartwatches

They're just smartwatches, but they're still controversial. And some revolve around the very same health tracking they promote.

In 2018, the Apple Watch first introduced an electrocardiogram feature, which sounds great. But, medical professionals urged users not to blindly trust the watch, as average users might not understand the results. This feature increased the odds of misdiagnosis.

Then, there's Fitbit's love with data. You see, when Google announced the purchase, the giant was also facing backlash over privacy issues. So, many users threw away their Fitbits, as they didn't want to be a part of Google's privacy issues, especially regarding health.

Wearables present a dilemma. A study showed that 89% of users wear it all the time. But, as more and more companies face scrutiny regarding data, customers might not love the idea of wearing them 24/7.

Also, besides privacy issues, there are constant reminders to work out, walk more and stay on top of your health. For some, this might be great, but for others, it might induce anxiety and stress.

In the end, a smartwatch can be an excellent tool for those into fitness and exercise. But it can also be another way for us to remain connected, even when we don't want to. Let us know what you think.

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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