Apple and Fitbit Try to Outrun Chinese Competition for Wearables

March 5, 2019, 5:56 PM UTC

Consumers in 2018 snapped up millions more smartwatches, and even smarter earbuds and headphones, than a year earlier, propelling the market for smart wearables up 28%, research firm International Data Corp. reported on Tuesday.

But while manufacturers shipped 172 million smart wearables in total, that was still only about one-eighth the number of smartphones or one-half the number of personal computer shipped for the year.

Apple was the top seller of wearables in 2018, moving an estimated 46.2 million devices, IDC said. The total includes estimates for the Apple Watch, Apple’s AirPods, and versions of its Beats headphones, which are capable of connecting to the company’s Siri digital assistant. (Apple (AAPL) doesn’t release exact figures for its wearables sales.)

For the first time in 2018, IDC broadened the category to include earpods and headphones that connect to digital assistants, not just smartwatches and fitness trackers. That helped push some 2017 top five manufacturers, like Garmin (GRMN) and Fossil (FOSL), which aren’t big in headphones, out of the rankings.

The market for what IDC is calling ear-worn wearables “is the next battleground for companies as these types of headphones become a necessity for many given the exclusion of headphone jacks from modern devices,” senior research analyst Jitesh Ubrani wrote in the report. “Add to that the rise of smart assistants and in-ear biometrics and companies have the perfect formula to sell consumers on a device that’s complimentary to the device ecosystem that lives on their wrist and in their pocket.”

Chinese gadget maker Xiaomi ranked second for the year, with device shipments rising 45% to 23.3 million. The company’s low-cost Mi Band 3, which sells in the United States for less than $35, was among the best-selling devices in the world for simpler wrist-worn fitness trackers, IDC said.

Fitbit, which once dominated the category, slipped to third place overall for 2018, with its total device shipments down 10% to 13.8 million. Its future may lie in partnerships with health insurers and large employers, who will distribute Fitbit (FIT) activity trackers and smartwatches to help employees stay healthy, IDC said.

Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei ranked fourth, with shipments up 147% to 11.3 million. Samsung was in fifth place for the year, with its wearables shipments growing 85% to 10.7 million.