When Fitbit launched its first product in 2009, the activity tracker didn’t even share data to a smartphone app. Instead, it wirelessly connected to a base station that had to be tethered to your computer. The clip-on itself displayed some information, but Fitbit’s website was where you’d find visualizations of your personal activity data. It was a kind of gateway drug to what would become our full-fledged, 2010’s, quantified-self addictions.
Over the years Fitbit would become known for its accessible hardware, but it was its software—its mobile app, social network, sleep tracking, subscription coaching—that made it stand out in an ocean of fitness wearables.
Now Fitbit has come full (activity) circle, and is being bought by one of the largest software companies in the world. Google says it is acquiring Fitbit to bring together “the best AI, software and hardware” in order to “spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.” It complements Google’s vision for “ambient computing,” as my WIRED colleague Louise Matsakis points out; gives it more technological armor to compete with Apple Watch; and could help Google do deeper in the healthcare market.
Although Fitbit’s position in wearables has weakened over the past three years, it was for a long time the clear leader in activity-tracking wearables. It opened the floodgates for a decade of innovation around Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-connected wrist dongles, ones packed with sensors, displays, and batteries that got better each year. Things got weird in wearable land. Many wearable startups didn’t make it, while others, like Fitbit, got bought by Big Tech.
But now that giant tech corporations are fully invested in health trackers—Apple, Xiaomi, and Huawei held the lead in the global wearables market as of the second quarter of this year—the future remains uncertain for smaller players who are still trying to have an impact. And, even though there’s a chance that Google’s plan to buy Fitbit may not pass muster with regulators, it is possible that there might even be some upside to having massive tech companies become the central repositories for our daily health stats.Back in Time
Not long after Fitbit launched its first tracker in 2009, the private company Jawbone, which was already a successful maker of audio products, pivoted to wearables. The company’s first wristband, called the Jawbone Up, actually plugged into a phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack to sync the band’s data (back when phones actually had headphone jacks). A year after that, in 2012, Nike launched FuelBand, another polymer wristband that was supposed to motivate its wearers, in this case through a proprietary—and seemingly arbitrary—metric labeled “Fuel.”
Others soon crowded the space. In late 2012, a company called Basis Science launched the B1 body monitor, which stood out because of its optical heart rate sensors, something the earlier wristbands didn’t include. A Bay Area startup called Lark shipped the Larklife band, which tracked both daytime activity and nighttime sleep and was so clunky that one of my editors at the time referred to it as a celibacy band. A Canadian company called Mio Global launched the Mio Link in early 2014, a device that was recognized as one of the first fitness trackers that transmitted continuous heart rate readings. A company called Misfit even had a low-powered wearable that ran on coin-cell batteries and never needed to be plugged in.SUBSCRIBE
The fitness watch stalwarts, Garmin and Polar, start jamming even more sensors into their already capable watches, and beefing up their mobile applications. Microsoft shipped something called the Microsoft Band, and after that, the Microsoft Band 2.
And then there was Pebble. After a remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, Pebble started selling its smartwatch—this was a smartwatch, not a wristband—in 2013. In many ways, Pebble was emblematic of this era of wearables. It was scrappy (designed in a Palo Alto garage), it was agnostic (it played nice with both iPhone and Android), it had its own smartwatch operating system and app store (An app store! For a tiny watch!) Later versions of Pebble would also embrace health and fitness-tracking as a core feature set.
Pebble, of course, was eventually acquired by Fitbit, which makes Google’s purchase today a kind of “wearable turducken,” as CNET’s Scott Stein put it on Twitter. Jawbone failed, badly. Basis Science sold itself to Intel. Misfit went to Fossil. Lark become a software company focused on chronic conditions. Mio Global was split into two businesses; the software still exists under a different name, while its hardware became a part of Lifesense. Microsoft never bothered to ship another Band.
Fitbit continued to develop new wrist wearables at a steady pace, evolving its product line from clip-on trackers to wristbands to a sport watch to smartwatches and back again to lightweight wristbands. Since its inception, Fitbit has sold nearly 100 million devices.
“Fitbit has really been an early success story,” says Jitesh Ubrani, research director at IDC. “They were early in the space, and they became the de facto standard. Consumers would look at other wearables and still call it a Fitbit.”
That wouldn’t always be the case, though, and analysts say two major factors contributed to this: The launch of the shiny, covetable Apple Watch in the spring of 2015, and the squeeze from Chinese electronics giants Xiaomi and Huawei. Xiaomi’s Mi Band, launched in 2014, cost just $15, and could do most of the things a $130 Fitbit could do.
On the day that Fitbit became a publicly-traded company, in June of 2015, Fitbit cofounder and CEO James Park sat for an interview on Marketplace that might be haunting him a bit today.
“Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, Tim Cook comes to you and says, ‘I’ll give you, James, $2 billion for your company.’ What do you say?” the reporter asks Park.
“Um,” Park says, and after a pause continues, “We’ve never really been focused on exits as a company. Really, the key to our success has been being really heads-down and focused on growing the business over the years.”Well Worn
Now that Google has scooped up Fitbit, the question becomes whether it’s good for the personal health-tracking market that few wearable startups still exist, and that the power and control over our data lies in the hands of a few giants: Apple, Google, Samsung, and prominent Chinese companies whose internal operations are even more opaque.
That’s what regulators will likely be asking as they examine the deal. In the immediate term, Google says it will “never sell personal information to anyone” and that “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.” Fitbit, likewise, says the company never sells personal information, and that Fitbit health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads. (Both companies declined requests for interviews.)LEARN MORE
One of the potential negatives for consumers, says Ubrani, is that even if Google vows not to sell ads against your health data, it could find other creative ways to monetize whatever you’re sharing through your wrist.
“They have the data, so they can tie software and services together to try to sell more of their other services,” he says. That’s both the upside and downside of interoperability, of your software working across your phone, your laptop, your smartwatch, or potentially even your smart glasses—when it works, it works, but it’s another access point into your life for one of the tech giants.
Consumers may also be rightfully concerned about privacy and security. Facebook’s privacy missteps have been a “watershed moment” for these issues in the tech sector, Ubrani says, and privacy policies are being scrutinized more.
But ultimately, it’s these same large tech companies that should, in theory, have the resources to address privacy and security problems as they pertain to consumer health, too. “When it comes to my own data, I would trust a much larger company that has checks and balances in place and the resources to secure my data,” Ubrani says, “because they also have the best talent that’s out there.”
Alan Antin, a senior director at Gartner Research who has long covered the wearables space (and worked for Polar many years before), doesn’t agree that dominant tech companies are better positioned to handle our wearables data responsibly, simply because they have the resources to do so.
“There will always be some skepticism—and this is going to be a big one for Google—around the fact that they have too much data on us,” Antin says. “There will always be some segment of people thinking, ‘Well, Google is going to send ads to me based on what I’m doing with these other devices.’ And this applies more broadly to other technology devices as well.”
On the other hand, Google owning a successful wearable brand could allow it to compete more effectively with Apple. So far, Google has tried to edge into Cupertino’s wearable share by licensing out its WearOS software to fashion brands, or by acquiring part of Fossil’s business. Neither strategy has made a huge dent. But now that Google will control both the software and the hardware on whatever new wrist-computers bloom from this acquisition, it’s likely that its Android-powered smartwatches are going to become that much smarter.
“Google’s been really great at using AI to predict what you’re searching for when you use its search engine, or to know, OK, at 5:30, I’m going to pick up my kid from school, and here’s how much time it’s going to take,” Antin says. “If you think about applying that intelligence to your fitness, your health, and your wellbeing, you might be able to create more utility.”
“The tradeoff will be, ‘I don’t want one company knowing all of this about me,’ versus, ‘I can see the value,’” he says.