Can new Apple Watch sharing features top Fitbit's leaderboard?

Apple's upcoming watchOS 3 software update has many fitness and activity tracking enhancements, including a new feature for sharing workout data with friends. But can it measure up to Fitbit's established leaderboard?

apple watch activity
Credit: Apple

A ton of news came out of Apple's 2016 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) Monday, but as someone who closely watches the wearable and activity-tracker spaces, this jumped out at me: the Apple Watch's Activity app is getting a leaderboard ... sort of.

This fall, Apple will release watchOS 3, a free software update for its smartwatch. For the first time, Apple Watch users will be able to their share progress in completing the three Apple Watch Activity app rings with other Watch users. (You must opt-in, of course). The rings represent daily progress in burning calories, moving at a brisk pace for at least 30 minutes cumulatively, and standing up once an hour for 12 hours.

[Related: 3 reasons to buy Fitbit's new Alta band, and 2 reasons not to]

Sharing activity data can bring out your competitive spirit, which in turn motivates you to move more. This past Saturday, for instance, I racked up more than 26,000 Fitbit steps in a competition with my niece Marcy, an ambitious Fitbit newcomer.

The lack of activity sharing in Apple Watch has always seemed like a huge omission. It's great to see your three rings move toward completion each day, but sharing (and competing) with others is even better motivation to hit your goals.

Apple Activity app vs. Fitbit leaderboard

It remains to be seen whether or not the new sharing feature in Apple's Activity app will truly rival Fitbit's leaderboard, however.

Fitbit ranks users by position, from number one on down the list, in real-time against people with whom you share your step count. The Fitbit leaderboard is easy to grasp at a glance, and it works along with the Fitbit mobile app and in a browser. You can also easily cheer, taunt, and send messages with people on your leaderboard.

fitbit leaderboard

Apple's leaderboard approach looks a bit different. It does not rank participants by numbers, for example. On the other hand, Apple says you can receive automatic notifications about friends' progress, such as alerts when people complete their Activity rings. Fitbit doesn't currently alert you if, say, a friend passes you on the leaderboard, unless you're both participating in a shared challenge.

The Activity app will also integrate with Apple's Messages software, so you can use the Messages app to taunt or cheer friends, or send them your "racing" heartbeat. Fitbit lets you exchange similar messages, but you can't send your heartbeat.

[Related: Why Apple Watch is a business traveler's best friend]

It's worth noting that Fitbit is the current leader in activity tracking wearables, with about 25 percent of the market as of Q1 2016, according to IDC (a CIO.com sibling organization). Chinese's Xiaomi is No. 2, with 19 percent of the market, but Xiaomi's devices are primarily available in China. Apple ranks third, IDC says, with 7.5 percent of the market, followed by Garmin (4.6 percent) and Samsung (3.6 percent).

Fitbit's market-leading position means you're more likely to know someone with a Fitbit than, say, with an Apple Watch or Garmin wearable, so Fitbit users probably have more friends and family to compete with.  

More Apple Watch fitness enhancements from WWDC

Apple also announced four additional goodies worth looking forward to:

  • When you're on a run and stop, say, to make a quick ATM deposit, Apple Watch automatically pauses and resumes your workout accordingly.
  • During exercise, you can see up to five performance metrics in one Apple Watch screen: distance, heart rate, active calories, pace, and elapsed time. Apple says you can highlight the most important metric, such as heart rate, for easy at-a-glance viewing.
  • A new app called Breathe provides "mesmerizing animations" and gentle taps to help you focus on breathing for stress reduction. Along with Apple Watch's stand reminders, you'll be able to get Time-to-Breathe reminders.
  • Hourly move reminders will continue to tell you to stand up and move around, but watchOS 3 also tells wheelchair users when "it's time to roll."    

With the upcoming watchOS 3 update, Apple is playing catch up with Fitbit, Garmin and others that already offer activity leaderboards. Fitbit's leaderboard — dead-simple to use, more chances of connecting with people you know — is going to be hard to beat. However, Apple's clearly stepping up its activity tracking game and attempting to make the Watch more compelling for fitness buffs. 

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