On November 1, Google paid $2.1 billion to acquire Fitbit, one of the most well-known fitness tracker brands in the world. Could this mean we’ll finally see a true Apple Watch competitor? Something with Fitbit’s generally excellent hardware and Google’s smart software? That’s the hope.
On the surface the purchase makes sense. Google makes an operating system for smartwatches called Wear OS, but it doesn’t make the hardware itself, leaving that to third-party manufacturers. Android, another Google operating system, followed this same model for phones and tablets. In recent years, the Silicon Valley giant has released flagship hardware under the name Pixel to show off what its operating system can do. We’ve seen four generations of Pixel Phones, two generations of Pixelbooks, yet no Pixel Watch. It’s likely that this acquisition will change that.
Of course, we’ve been fooled before. In January, the tech company bought some of Fossil’s smartwatch technology and hired some of the engineers who created it. The move prompted speculation that we would finally see a Pixel Watch, with a Fossil body and a Google brain. It has yet to materialize. An official statement regarding the Fitbit buyout seems to imply that is the goal of this purchase:
“Over the years, Google has made progress with partners in this space with Wear OS and Google Fit,” says Google’s Rick Osterloh, senior vice president of Devices and Services. “But we see an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market.”
Motorola, Fossil, Casio, Polar, and many other companies already make watches that run Wear OS. While some of them are pretty good, I would stop short of calling any of them great, and I’ve tested dozens. As an operating system, Wear OS is fairly intuitive. It works with any smartphone, including the iPhone. It also does a solid job of displaying notifications, appointments, and health and fitness data, gives you a second map to glance at, and even allows you to reply quickly to messages and emails. Things get wonky when manufacturers start adding their own software on top of it. Bugs and redundancies pop up, and the user experience suffers. The idea of a Pixel Watch would be to finally see Wear OS’s true potential, with hardware and software designed in tandem. This is what you get from the Apple Watch, and the experience is more cohesive.
Wear OS does have some advantages over Apple’s technology. Originally known as Android Wear, it launched in March 2014 and had more than a one-year head-start over Apple Watch. It’s also cross-platform, working nicely with both iPhones and Androids, while the Apple Watch works exclusively with the iPhone. None of that seems to matter much, though. Apple currently has 36 percent of the smartwatch market share. Samsung is in the number two slot with 11 percent. Fitbit, in comparison, has just 5.5 percent.
What Fitbit does have, though, is 28 million active users, a number which grew by 2.2 million from the previous year, and a 12-year history of selling more than 100 million devices. (By comparison, Apple Watch supposedly has 55 million active users.) Apple may make the best and most ubiquitous smartwatch, but if someone sees a health- and fitness-tracking band on your wrist, they’ll assume that it’s a Fitbit. In contrast, most people out there have never heard of Wear OS. That another benefit of the acquistion.
Fitbit stands to gain a lot here, too. While its smartwatches have been getting better, they’re still on the simple side. What Google does, arguably better than any other company, is Artificial Intelligence. Everybody’s heard of Apple’s Siri. Few people are on a first-name basis with Google Assistant, which leaves Siri in the dust. It’s better at understanding conversational speech, as well as context. That’s really important when we’re talking about a device with a screen that’s typically around an inch and a half. The less time you spend squinting at it and prodding the tiny text with your giant sausage fingers, the better. That seems to be what Fitbit is hoping for, as well.
“With Google’s resources and global platform, Fitbit will be able to accelerate innovation in the wearables category, scale faster, and make health even more accessible to everyone,” says James Park, Fitbit’s co-founder and CEO, in the company’s official statement.
The big question on a lot of people’s minds is: “What the hell is Google going to do with all of my health data?” The compay is a global leader in serving up ads based on the myriad personal information it collects though the services you likely rely on every day (Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Search to name just a few). It seems both companies anticipated these justified concerns, and both issued statements in their acquisition announcements.
Fitbit is especially explicit about it: “Fitbit will continue to put users in control of their data and will remain transparent about the data it collects and why. The company never sells personal information, and Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.”
Google’s statement echoed that, but added, “And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.” Basically, if you already trust Google with all of your other intimate bits of info, this doesn’t seem any more risky. By the same token, that will do little to mollify those who don’t trust Google.
Of course, this could still fall through. The purchase still has to be approved by both companies’ boards. Big companies like Google are also under increasing scrutiny from regulators around accusations of monopoly, and there’s more talk than ever about breaking up big tech companies. That said, I think it’s likely that this will go the way of Nest, which the company acquired in 2014 and has since renamed Google Nest. Chances are we’ll see a Google Fitbit (or Fitbit by Google) watch sometime in the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping it takes the best of both companies and finally makes it into a cohesive smartwatch that could provide a little competition for Apple Watch.