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Watch out Fitbit: Apple is closing in

Leading wearable brand Fitbit may have a fight on its hands in the wearables space, as Apple finds itself within striking distance following its first year in the wearables market.

That’s according to analyst firm IDC, who says Apple has landed the number two spot in the growing market space.

According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, Apple shipped a total of 3.6 million units in the second quarter of 2015, just 0.8 million units behind Fitbit's 4.4 million units.

Total shipment volume for the quarter came to 18.1 million units, up 223.2% from the 5.6 million units shipped in 2Q14.

"Anytime Apple enters a new market, not only does it draw attention to itself, but to the market as a whole," Ramon Llamas, research manager for IDC's wearables team, says.

"Its participation benefits multiple players and platforms within the wearables ecosystem, and ultimately drives total volumes higher,” he explains.

“Apple also forces other vendors – especially those that have been part of this market for multiple quarters – to re-evaluate their products and experiences.”

Llamas says Apple will become the stick against which other wearables are measured, and competing vendors need to stay current or ahead of Apple.

“Now that Apple is officially a part of the wearables market, everyone will be watching to see what other wearable devices it decides to launch, such as smart glasses or hearables," he says.

According to IDC, Apple's arrival had the greatest impact on the smart wearables category, or those devices capable of running third party applications.

 "About two of every three smart wearables shipped this quarter was an Apple Watch," says Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. "Apple has clearly garnered an impressive lead in this space and its dominance is expected to continue.

“And,” Ubrani adds, “although Fitbit outshipped Apple, it's worth noting that Fitbit only sells basic wearables – a category that is expected to lose share over the next few years, leaving Apple poised to become the next market leader for all wearables."

In the short history of the wearable market, a clear divide has formed between smart wearables and basic wearables (devices that do not run third-party applications, and includes most fitness trackers), Ubrani says.  Price and functionality are the main differences between the two categories, and that gap is expected to widen over time.

For vendors focused on basic wearables, the challenge will be to compete with the additional features offered by smart wearables while still turning a profit in the price sensitive basic wearables market.

Vendor Highlights:

Fitbit's 2Q15 results reads as a list of successes: triple-digit year-over-year worldwide volume growth; double-digit year-over-year worldwide revenue and profit growth; expanded partnerships with corporate wellness groups, fashion, and food companies; and increased visibility in the media. Fitbit resonates with customers because it has remained true to its simple value proposition of tracking fitness to encourage healthier lifestyles rather than promising the multi-purpose functionality that most smart watches have sought.

Apple's first appearance in the wearables market finds it in the number 2 position overall, and well within reach of market leader Fitbit. Apple is just getting started with its Watch, having reached just sixteen geographic markets to date and starting agreements with third-party retailers. But what is most important is the continued development of the watchOS platform. At its WWDC in June, Apple announced that the next version of watchOS will allow for native applications, which could have a similar effect that iPhones enjoyed when native apps became available.

Xiaomi made a fairly big splash when it entered the wearables market last year with its Mi Band. Since then its growth has been unstoppable in China as the vendor was quick to introduce rock-bottom prices. Xiaomi recently expanded into markets outside China although its limited distribution channels have been a dampening factor on its growth.

Garmin's laser-like focus on fitness devices for "citizen athletes" (runners, cyclists, and swimmers) has been successful so far, though increasing competition from the likes of Fitbit and Xiaomi has led to a reduction in share. Garmin's new ConnectIQ platform may help alleviate some of the pressure as it attempts to offer access to third party applications, data fields, watch faces, and widgets to further customize its wearable devices.

Samsung narrowly edged out Huawei and Jawbone to remain among the top 5 vendors during the quarter. The company saw sustained success with the popularity of its Gear S and Gear Fit devices, and hinted at a massively redesigned Gear S2 to be announced next month. Given Samsung's history of making its latest wearable devices compatible only with Samsung's top models and nearly exclusive reliance on Tizen, the company has limited its potential reach. Whether that trend continues with the Gear S2 will bear close observation.

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