Apple is crushing the wearables industry thanks to its wildly popular AirPods, and it's going to be more challenging than ever for Samsung and Fitbit to catch up

apple air pod pro

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Apple's AirPods Pro.

The iPhone may be Apple's biggest and most profitable product. But as wireless earbuds like AirPods are continuing to grow in popularity, Apple seems positioned to dominate the wearable technology market, possibly making it more difficult for longtime rivals like Samsung and Fitbit to catch up.

Global shipments of wearable devices hit 84.5 million units in the third quarter of 2019, representing a year-over-year increase of 94.6%, according to recently published statistics from the International Data Corporation.Advertisement

Most of that growth was driven by the rise of "hearables," a term that refers to smart wireless earbuds like Apple's AirPods, Samsung's Galaxy Buds, and Amazon's Echo Buds. Ear-worn devices like wireless earbuds showed the highest year-over-year growth and accumulated the most market share in the third quarter when compared to smartwatches and wristbands. The earwear category grew by 242.4% year-over-year, while wristbands only grew by 48.6% and smartwatches grew by 48%, reports the IDC.

The shift toward "hearables" could be troubling for players like Fitbit, which was recently acquired by Google, and Samsung, two companies that have historically held a strong presence in the wearables industry thanks to their respective wrist-worn devices, not their headphones.

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Samsung and Fitbit are barely present in the wireless earbuds space, especially compared to Apple.

Samsung and Fitbit are barely present in the wireless earbuds space, especially compared to Apple.

Samsung, for example, was the second-largest smartwatch vendor in the second quarter of 2019 coming in just behind Apple, while Fitbit came in third, according to Strategy Analytics. Samsung sells earbuds too, but the company accounts for a smaller sliver of the truly wireless earbuds market compared to the smartwatch space.

Samsung only accounted for 6% of the truly wireless earbuds market in the third quarter of 2019, according to Counterpoint Research, losing its second-place spot to Chinese tech firm Xiaomi. Apple, however, dominated the market with a 45% share of the industry in Q3 2019.

Fitbit launched its own headphones called the Fitbit Flyer in 2017, but those earbuds no longer appear in its product lineup on its website. It is possible, however, that Fitbit's lack of a presence in the earbud market may not matter as much, considering it's joining Google. The search giant has its own plans to launch wireless earbuds called the Pixel Buds in 2020.

But even then, it will likely be challenging for Google to make a significant dent in the market, considering it's coming much later than competitors like Apple, Samsung, and the Apple-owned Beats, among others.

It's probably not a coincidence that the companies growing in the wireless earbud space are the same ones that are taking over the broader wearables market too.

It's probably not a coincidence that the companies growing in the wireless earbud space are the same ones that are taking over the broader wearables market too.

IDC's research indicates this trend is starting to have a more apparent impact on the broader wearables market. Samsung and Fitbit are continuing to trail behind Apple and other rivals, like Xiaomi, as interest in wireless headphones is ramping up.

Apple emerged as the market leader for overall wearable tech space during the third quarter of 2019, which IDC attributes to the popularity of the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Beats headphones. Apple accounts for 35% of the wearable technology market during that period and grew by 195.5% year-over-year.

Samsung, by comparison, is responsible for 9.8% of the wearables market, according to IDC. That still represents a jump from its 7.4% share of the market in Q3 2018, but wasn't enough to bump Samsung up to second place — a position held by Xiaomi, which claims 14.6% of the market. And it's far behind Apple's 35% market share.

Fitbit saw its slice of the wearables market shrink from 8% in the third quarter of 2018 to 4.1% in the third quarter of 2019, bumping it down to fifth place behind Huawei, Samsung, and Xiaomi.

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And Apple probably isn't slowing down anytime soon since wearables are more important than ever for the company.

And Apple probably isn't slowing down anytime soon since wearables are more important than ever for the company.

Products like AirPods and the Apple Watch are increasingly critical for Apple as the company combats slowing iPhone sales. That suggests Apple will probably be eager to keep its top spot in the wearables segment.

As revenue from the iPhone has declined in recent quarters, Apple's wearables, home, and accessories divisions has soared, growing to $6.5 billion. That comes after Apple released two new pairs of AirPods this year: a refreshed version of its standard AirPods that now include hands-free Siri access and optional wireless charging, and the pricier Pro version, which offer active noise-cancelation and a new design.

Apple hasn't said how many AirPods units have been sold, and it doesn't specify how much revenue it earns from AirPods alone. But analysts at Wedbush Securities predict Apple is on pace to sell between 85 and 90 million AirPods in 2020, an increase from the estimated 65 million AirPods expected to be sold in 2019.

All told, the latest research from IDC suggests that catching up to Apple in the wearables space will be more challenging than ever for rival gadget-makers like Samsung, Fitbit, and Google. Not only does Apple dominate the smartwatch market, but it doesn't seem like any other companies are even coming close to mirroring the success of AirPods.