Gizmos

How Fitbit Could Challenge the Apple Watch

2017 wasn’t kind to Fitbit. Here’s the case for an unlikely partnership that could help it make a dent in the smartwatch market.

Fitbit smartwatches.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by fitbit.com.

For Fitbit, 2017 was not a good year. While the company emerged early on as the leader in the fitness-tracking space, its popularity waned as worthy upstarts like Jawbone and Misfit and smartwatches from big brands like Apple began eating into its market domination. By early 2017, its sales were dropping and its stock plummeting. The company laid off more than 100 employees. While the company still offers a suite of wearable products, it believes its salvation lies in the smartwatch arena.

“We believe we are uniquely positioned to succeed in delivering what consumers are looking for in a smartwatch: stylish, well-designed devices that combine the right general purpose functionality with a focus on health and fitness,” Fitbit CEO James Park said following its disappointing 2016 fourth-quarter earnings.

The company acquired another troubled wearable startup, Pebble, to aid its efforts, but so far to no avail. Its attempt last year, the Fitbit Ionic, didn’t hit the mark: It too suffered “disappointing” sales. But on Tuesday, Park said that we should expect a “mass appeal” smartwatch from the company, and we’ve gotten a sneak peek at what that could be. Wearable blog Wareable reports that Fitbit is working on a follow-up to its Fitbit Blaze smartwatch set to land this spring. It has a smaller watch face than the Ionic, which should make it more appealing to those with smaller wrists (read: women), will come in four colors with different strap options, and will be water-resistant up to 50 meters. It also will reportedly include an SpO2 sensor, like the Ionic, which can detect sleep apnea. The device will not, however, have a built-in GPS. It will run Fitbit’s own software, which pairs with the Fitbit app to provide fitness, sleep, and daily activity metrics.

This comes together to sound like a satisfactory smartwatch—especially if it lands at a more palatable price point than competitors like the Apple Watch. However, that may not be enough for the upcoming device to make a big dent in the smartwatch space. It has some stiff competition: The Apple Watch, for example, isn’t just the world’s most popular smartwatch—it’s also now the best-selling watch on Earth. And to be perceived as a device with “mass appeal,” Fitbit will have to battle its own heritage as a maker of only fitness trackers and step counters. Its app, which provides a number of useful metrics and health-analysis tools, still caters toward that activity-focused mindset. While it’s not “bad” by any means, Fitbit’s software may be one piece of the puzzle holding the company back, and there’s a drastic (though unlikely) pivot the company could make that just might fix those issues: becoming an Android Wear smartwatch.

Fitbit’s own OS, complete with robust health and fitness-tracking features, works well and provides a number of useful features. You can get basic notifications from your phone—for example, if you receive a message or a call—and you can share your Fitbit data with other apps. The OS is also platform agnostic, compatible whether you prefer an iOS or an Android smartphone. However, Fitbit’s integration with your smartphone is still limited. While it has interoperability with some third-party apps such as Starbucks and Pandora—thanks to its recently launched App Gallery—it’s not the same level of choice you’d get on an Apple Watch or even an Android Wear device. By joining forces with the Android Wear platform, Fitbit’s hardware would gain access to services like Google Assistant, Android Pay, Facebook Messenger, and Uber. The addition of a voice-based assistant, in particular, could prove to be compelling addition for Fitbit’s watch as a growing number of products gain Alexa and Google Assistant integration. The switch to a broader OS like Android Wear would also help with Fitbit’s problem of mass appeal—while a device could retain Fitbit’s activity-monitoring smarts, it might lose the activity-focused stigma its brand name holds. This could be key in expanding its sales to the masses.

There’s reason to think it could be mutually beneficial, but such a move isn’t a guarantee: While the smartwatch market has been booming, with anticipated sales in 2018 set to top 71 million, Android Wear has not thus far been a winner. The platform shipped less than 5 million units in 2017, and analysts expect it to ship only about 6 million units in 2018. It would seem that as Google has pushed into the smart-assistant and smartphone spaces, the company has let its wearable endeavors fall by the wayside.

There’s no reason for Fitbit to jump aboard a sinking ship, even it would vastly broaden the capabilities of its smartwatches. But if Google wants to reinvigorate its smartwatch efforts, and Fitbit wants to make its devices more integral to your mobile experience, there are solutions that might make sense. They could partner together for a suite of new Android Wear products—or Google could even acquire the company, bringing Fitbit into its fold like it has with Nest, for smart home products, and HTC, for its smartphone development. With Fitbit under its umbrella, Google would finally have devices worthy of taking on the Apple Watch, the linchpin of the smartwatch space. Fitbit would gain the software smarts and third-party interoperability to make it a killer smartwatch, without losing that OS agnosticism. The biggest downside here is that consumers would lose some of the variety of the smartwatch space—but if Fitbit’s sales numbers are any indicator, that doesn’t seem to be something consumers value. If Fitbit really wants to deliver a device with mass market appeal, it may need to look at reimagining its identity.