The smartwatch may not be dying, but it’s not exactly thriving right now – which makes Fitbit’s sudden intention to enter the market all the more confusing.
But there’s every reason to believe that by the end of 2018 Fitbit could have created the world’s best-selling smartwatch. One with the perfect apps for those who want to improve themselves, a monster battery life and stunning design – and could even stop runners getting thirsty when out and about.
The company’s CEO claims the smartwatch market is worth $10 billion dollars, citing that figure as a reason for Fitbit to jump into the arena, but it’s hard to know where he’s getting those numbers from, and sales of smartwatches are slumping.
However, if you interrogate those numbers a little you’ll see that there’s still plenty of opportunity in the smartwatch game – you just need to know where to look. For starters, every brand that isn’t Apple actually showed growth in recent numbers from market research firm IDC, and if you look at the list you’ll see Garmin sneaking in at number five.
The numbers the running watch manufacturer are posting aren’t gargantuan by any means, but do show that fitness is becoming key to any wearable. Apple showed this by making the Watch 2 much friendlier for the athlete, and every other brand is packing in as many rep-counting, run-tracking and swim-proofing elements as it can.
So, if anything, Fitbit is going to be late to the smartwatch game – the Fitbit Blaze was a nod to the segment, but without any third-party apps on board it was a toe-dip in the Olympics-size pool that already had Pebble, Apple, Samsung and Garmin gliding sleekly through its waters.
What can Fitbit do then? Well, apparently the answer is to hoover up smaller and ailing companies in the smartwatch and technology space – so let’s see what clues we can divine from Fitbit’s buying spree of the last 12 months.
Things began in May 2016, when Fitbit sucked up Coin (and didn’t break its vacuum cleaner, luckily), the company that made a credit card-sized device that could store all your credit cards.
It wasn’t that device, however, but the wearables payment platform that Fitbit wanted, according to statements issued during the purchase.
It meant Fitbit was now able to integrate NFC-based purchasing power into its devices, and although it said none were coming in 2016 (and subsequently did not) it’s widely expected that’ll happen in 2017.
Fitbit CEO James Park said, at the time of the buyout: “Coin has been one of the key innovators in advanced payment solutions. The inclusion of their payment technology into our offerings will further our strategy of making Fitbit products an indispensable part of people's lives."
The deal saw staff members and the intellectual property (IP) from Coin transfer to Fitbit – but the brand will still need to negotiate deals with a variety of banks and card providers to allow it to play in the mobile payments space.
The highest-profile acquisition (and most relevant to creating a smartwatch) is Fitbit’s Pebble buyout, which saw it taking the company’s IP (technology and software) and staff members.
Interestingly, ex-Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky said (in an interview with Backchannel) that Fitbit was the company he went with because it promised to safeguard the future of the developer community around the Pebble ecosystem, allowing those entrenched in making apps for the smartwatches to keep doing do.
But that was a means to an end as well: in buying Pebble, Fitbit had the foundations to create its own app store, which it’s planning to do this year, and it’s working with the same Pebble developers as the fitness-tracking brand works to keep those apps alive.
There’s possibly something potentially even more innovative from the Pebble acquisition that Fitbit could use to great advantage: the sadly-defunct Pebble Core was going to be the first device to offer offline Spotify playback, with no phone needed.
It was also set to run Amazon’s Alexa platform, and was definitely a device to watch – and that technology now lives within Fitbit’s R&D labs.
Pebble was known for smartwatches with up to 10-day battery life, which is far in excess of most others out there… except Vector, another company bought by Fitbit at the tail end of 2016.
The Romania-based brand had Joe Santana as its CEO – the man who previously had worked with Timex for 20 years before becoming its CEO there too, and therefore knew a thing or two about making timepieces.
Vector’s wearable strength lay in the combination of its monster 30-day battery life with high-end design – and Fitbit is keeping the Romanian HQ where the design work took place open as a “cutting-edge development center” and “further building our global engineering capabilities and expanding our presence in EMEA [Europe, the Middle East and Africa]”.
So what should we expect?
Fitbit is certainly talking a good smartwatch game – in a recent interview with the The Verge on the company’s buyout of Pebble, Fitbit CEO Park said his company wanted to offer a digital timepiece with everything in one place.
“We don’t think there’s been any product out there in smartwatches that combine general purposes, functionality, health and fitness, industrial design, and long battery life into one package,” he explained.
Apart from the horrendously vague ‘general purposes’ element of that plan (which could well be a generic term for notifications on the wrist) Fitbit has all the elements in one place – especially given that it’s also got both a strong heritage in fitness tracking and a known brand around the world.
It’s got a GPS option already in the shape of the Surge (heck, even Barack Obama wears one), and its Fitstar platform is an alternative to a personal trainer on your wrist.
We’ve tried a lot of smartwatches here at TechRadar, and from experience we can say that the perfect model that would appeal to those still interested in such a device would require the following things: a long battery life of at least a week or two, a beautiful design, clever and unobtrusive notifications, and a fantastic fitness capability underneath.
By fantastic, we mean it would have to have perfect GPS tracking, fitness plans baked in, heart rate, step and sleep recording, repetition counting for cross-fit sessions and a clear screen.
Fitbit now has all the pieces ready to put that together – and it could go further. Imagine a watch that could do all that, as well as integrate Spotify playback, allowing you to leave your phone at home… and have perfect voice recognition from Alexa so you don’t have to prod at the screen time and again.
There are still a number of issues here: Fitbit needs to create a vibrant app store that isn’t Apple or Google’s (which is almost impossible in itself), fuse together completely alien technologies in a sleek and usable device, and somehow – somehow – keep the cost down to an acceptable level.
But if it focuses on making a genuinely exciting product, combining the best of the smartwatch world with a recognized brand, then there’s every possibility that such a device could help revive the fortunes of the brand – and, more importantly, keep the whole sector vibrant by sparking a new wave of innovation by other companies looking for a slice of the increasing smartwatch pie.