In 2018 Fitbit made a bold move. It started its own smartwatch ecosystem, three years after Google and Apple.
However, its latest watch is a hit. The Fitbit Versa shipped more than a million units in its first two months. According to CCS Insight, only six million WearOS watches in total were sold in 2017. Fitbit’s bold move seems to be paying off.
Apps are the issue, though, as with most smartwatches.
Fitbit has bowed out of the kind of high-end 3D experiences you’ll get with an Apple Watch. The original Fitbit smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic, uses a relatively low-end Cortex-M4-based processor with only a fraction of the power of an Apple or Wear OS watch.
As a result, the watch lasts much longer between charges. But other smartwatch apps can’t simply be ported over to Fitbit resulting in more lo-fi apps.
Owners of Ionic and Versa watches may have noticed few high-profile apps have arrived since launch too. There’s Starbucks, a Philips Hue app made by Fitbit and Yelp. But where’s the rest?
The Fitbit community
Fitbit has turned its focus to the dev community, not big brands. Anyone can sign up to become a Fitbit developer, and use Fitbit Studio to start creating their own apps.
Fitbit runs developer events to fire up the would-be app creators out there. We went to one in London’s White City to meet some of the people who will, or have, brought new features to our Fitbit watches.
The first surprise is quite how much the 25,000-strong developer community overlaps with that of Pebble. Fitbit acquired the once-red-hot smartwatch maker in 2017, for $23 million.
Liam McLoughlin, Fitbit’s developer tools manager, worked at Pebble. So did developer advocate Jon Barlow. Every dev we met had some link to Pebble, for the most part because they previously made software for Pebble watches.
If you just bought a Versa because it’s a cute, long-lasting smartwatch, you may not have realised how deep the Pebble roots reach in Fitbit’s smartwatches.
Meet the devs
James Turk is a Fitbit scene dev who made one of the most popular Pebble apps, Glance. It let you reply to messages on the watch, push stocks and train notifications to the timeline, and it hooked up with automation app Tasker.
He played around, adding features he wanted that were missing from the Pebble watch at the time.
“The original Pebble SDK was C-based, and a lot of us learned C to use it,” says Turk. “I had C from university, and hadn’t touched it in many, many years.”
“The APIs they have are really easy. Much simpler than on Pebble,” he says. “Pebble was almost the other way around: we haven’t really thought about this so we’re going to give you the absolute bare bones of what you can possibly ever do and they’d say 'Wow, look at how creative you guys have got', and 'Jesus how did they do that'”.
More recently Turk made a Fitbit clock face that pulls-in “a new picture every day”, for a more dynamic look for your watch.
Cryptic clock faces
Nev Rawlins is another veteran Pebble and Fitbit developer. He started out designing faces for watch company Tokyo Flash.
“They used to have a design studio, a blog basically, and you could submit a design to them. People would vote on it, comment on it, and if Tokyo Flash liked it they’d turn it into a watch, and that was the incentive for us,” says Rawlins.
“They stopped doing that and there was a whole group of disgruntled designers left. I started doing watch faces for Pebble, and I was able to do their watch faces and transfer them over to Fitbit.”
Rawlins now works as a project manager. “I used to be a developer,” he says, “I moved on from it and I thought - I wish I was still doing that. And this gives me the opportunity.”
Like most dev communities, Fitbit’s is full of people who have the necessary coding skills from their day jobs, but don’t get to use those skills in as creative a manner while on the clock. “Cryptic” watch faces are Rawlins' speciality: “I make them a puzzle - it’s art on your wrist.”
Geek, for example, displays the time in binary. Division turns the numerals of a digital clock into circles with the corresponding number of segments. His clock faces are some of the most creative, and abstruse, you’ll find.
Like Tusk, he says the simplicity of Fitbit’s tools is one of the main benefits: “Some of the things I’ve done, I’ve imported back onto Pebble and it’s reminded me how much harder that was. Something I did in an hour… on the Pebble it took me half a day.”
Everyone seems to have a criticism or two about Fitbit’s app system, though. While easy to use, it’s also quite limiting. For example, Rawlins wanted to create a chronograph-style watch face that you could interact with using the Versa’s buttons. However, as watch faces only interact with screen taps, he had to make it into an app. And an app is not a watch face.
Apps and even watch faces are also somewhat hemmed-in by Fitbit’s SDK, software development kit.
“Right now the SDK doesn’t support custom fonts, so if you want to do a different font you have to create images of it yourself,” says Rawlins.
It’s something fellow dev Turk echoes. “The complication is making really sophisticated apps. The APIs are almost not sophisticated enough for some of the things you want to do,” he says. “If you want to do this style of app or watch face it’s great, but if you want to dig beneath that it’s not quite mature enough yet.”
Praise where it’s due
As a user it’s easy to assume in-depth apps aren’t available because there isn't a large enough audience of Fitbit users, but dev creativity is seemingly hamstrung by Fitbit itself.
There’s a question of motivation too. The Fitbit app Gallery doesn’t let developers charge for apps. None of the people we met were planning on retiring off app royalty income, and tools like Kiezelpay enable charges outside the “app store”. But it cements the idea we shouldn’t have to pay for developers’ work. We probably should.
Developers don’t even get stats about who downloads and uses their software either. “That was one thing Pebble did better,” says Rawlins. “You used to get some stats on how many people had downloaded your apps. People added hearts to it. You don’t get any of that with Fitbit. Unless you’re charging you have no idea.”
No-one’s self motivation lasts forever, particularly without some form of affirmation or feedback. Another developer we met, Richard D, made software for the Microsoft Band. The applet pulled Xbox Live account data into the watch face. It netted 14,500 installs, which was excellent for a wearable that is presumed to have sold fairly poorly.
He gets no similar stats for the faces he makes for Fitbit. And he also sees a lack of feedback from within the dev community. There is a forum area for sharing projects, but it is not as vibrant as it was in the Pebble heyday.
“I’m always hoping someone’s going to correct me [on the forum] as well. I’ll share something and say this is how I’ve done it, but I don’t know if that’s the best way or right way here. I’m hoping someone’s going to say 'you could have just done this' and it’ll be two lines of code instead of your ten,” says Richard D. “I try to go in and give a bit of feedback, or a thumbs up, but sometimes I’ll put one in there and no-one says anything.”
Fitbit may have some of the right tools, but other elements are a work in progress.
“I’d like to see the Fitbit community grow in the way the Pebble community did,” says Glance developer Turk. “Somewhat inevitably the Pebble thing had the Kickstarter vibe from the beginning. Fitbit is just more mature than that.”
As much Pebble DNA as there is in Fitbit’s team, the brand does not have the upstart, subculture-tinged cool that made the platform so attractive to exactly the kind of person who might produce apps for it. The hope is a community-led approach will make up for this. Let’s hope it works.