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Apple Watch nips at Fitbit's heels in wearables race

In just three months, Apple has come within striking distance of market leader Fitbit, shipping an estimated 3.6 million Apple Watches.

The Apple Watch is poised to reach the top of the wearables market in the coming quarters. CNET

No, the Apple Watch hasn't completely dominated the wearables market just yet -- but it's getting there.

In market researcher IDC's latest quarterly report on wearables, Apple's smartwatch -- which launched in April -- debuted at the No. 2 spot, just behind category leader Fitbit. Overall, Fitbit shipped 4.4 million wearables during the second quarter, while Apple shipped 3.6 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the market, IDC said Thursday.

"Apple will become the stick against which other wearables are measured, and competing vendors need to stay current or ahead of Apple," IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said in a statement. "Everyone will be watching to see what other wearable devices it decides to launch."

Fitbit, which in June became the first wearable tech company to go public, posted triple-digit shipment growth from a year earlier, though IDC warned that the company only sells basic wearables, which are expected to lose market share over the next few years. That gives Apple a big opening to capture the top wearables spot in the near future.

Apple this year made a big splash in the nascent wearables market -- which include smartwatches, fitness bands, smart glasses and clothing -- with its Apple Watch quickly bringing a surge of attention to these new gadgets. Total shipments of these products are expected to jump to 126 million items in 2019, up from nearly 20 million last year, mostly due to increased demand for smartwatches and fitness bands, according to IDC's forecasts. However, there remain nagging questions whether wearables will become mainstream devices, like smartphones or tablets, as many customers still don't see these gadgets as must-have items.

Apple, too, is struggling with this issue, even as it moves into the top position in the wearables market. For the second quarter, analysts had forecast Apple would sell 4 million Apple Watches. While the company didn't break out sales of the smartwatch in its earnings report last month -- saying it didn't want to tip its hand to competitors -- many analysts estimated that Apple failed to reach that figure. The company, though, is just getting started with Apple Watch sales, having reached 16 geographic markets to date and starting partnerships with retailers, including Best Buy.

Right behind Apple, Chinese firm Xiaomi came in at No. 3 on IDC's report, with 3.1 million shipments. The rest of the top five were well behind those three leaders, with Garmin and Samsung shipping less than 1 million units each.