Fitbit is definitely building a 'proper' smartwatch. In case the acquisitions of not one but two smartwatch makers – Pebble and Vector – last year weren't big enough clues, we have the first leaked pics and details direct from CEO James Park's mouth.
"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," Park said in a press release at the end of January.
So there it is. But what kind of smartwatch are we talking about? There were a couple of clues but not much to go on. Since then we've seen some leaked images and learned more about the internal workings. We've also spoken to experts and industry insiders (some of who asked to remain anonymous) to help us figure out what to expect – and what not to expect.
Confirmed: Fitbit smartwatch pics
So we now have the two first images of Fitbit's upcoming smartwatch and our initial feelings are mixed. Here's what we can tell from the pics: the watch features a large-ish (for Fitbit) square colour display, which looks to use that colour sparingly. That bodes well for talk of a four day battery life from Fitbit sources.
There are two physical buttons on the right hand edge so we don't yet know if it will sport a touchscreen. The two screens show a weather update and heart rate, mid workout, a feature that was pretty much a given on this device.
The aluminium unibody and screen are flush with the strap, another departure for Fitbit's watches and there will be at least two colours of the watch body - grey and gold, we don't have the official names yet. Plus the textured straps will come in black, muted blue and - we're sure - a whole range of other colours.
The sources of the leak also say that the watch will cost around $300 and be released this fall. They also claim the watch will arrive with the following specs: a 1,000 nit colour display, GPS, NFC payments plus storing and streaming music, but only from Pandora.
A Spotify app/partnership was apparently ruled out at some point. We know Fitbit was/is trying to make this watch, codenamed Project Higgs, waterproof but we don't know if it has succeeded.
So what else do we know about the Fitbit smartwatch?
Confirmed: Fitbit is going all-in on apps
In early January, Fitbit's CEO said in an interview that he wants to build a Fitbit app store "as soon as possible". Park also hinted that an app store would benefit Fitbit's corporate wellness programs.
"There are so many different applications [our partners] want to write," Park said, "from fitness-related ones to pill reminder applications. And we don't have the support in place for that right now, or any software infrastructure on our devices to run those apps."
We haven't seen any indication of third party apps in the leaked images but the Pandora music app now looks likely. We spoke to a source familiar with Fitbit's acquisition of Pebble in 2016 who confirmed that apps are no mere 'added extra' for Fitbit. It's going all-in because it wants to build a smartwatch to rival the Apple Watch.
"It wasn't 'hey, we really like what you're doing, we want to build a better watch with our expertise'. It was more 'no, we just want an SDK' [software development kit]," they said. "We were asking why are they buying us? Their answers: SDKs and apps and developers."
A second Pebble source told us: "Pebble has a best in class smartwatch developer experience. Fitbit most likely wants those software innovations to stand up an ecosystem with minimal effort."
George Jijiashvili, an analyst specialising in wearable tech at CCS Insight, sees potential problems here. "By going down the smartwatch/app ecosystem route," he said, "Fitbit will be up against the likes of Apple and numerous major device manufacturers who utilise Google's Android Wear platform. These companies have got vast marketing and R&D resources – making Fitbit's life very difficult."
And indeed, word has surfaced that Fitbit is struggling here. One report claims that the Fitbit app store will not be ready in time for the smartwatch's fall launch. Instead, the watch may launch with some custom-made apps, like the Blaze, with a full-blown app store to follow later, as the SDK may not be ready in time. This has since been corroborated by a Bloomberg report that also claims the app store has hit delays. Fitbit responded to the report that "any claims that the developer program is struggling is false." Fingers crossed it makes the watch's launch.
Back to what Fitbit might do in terms of music. The Apple Watch has Apple Music and now Spotify is making an official app of its own. Fitbit, however, has no music platform, and has reportedly not been able to secure an attempted partnership with Spotify. The Yahoo reports claim that Fitbit has built in Pandora to let users store and play music on the watch, but the service is only available in the US, Australia and New Zealand, leaving a question mark over how this might work in other countries, such as the UK.
Too early to call: Fitbit will have a ready-made developer army
Now, Jijiashvili believes that the success of Fitbit with Pebble developers depends on what we see next.
"Pebble had a small but dedicated group of followers, which included app developers who all contributed to the growth of that platform one way or another," the analyst told us. "As long as Fitbit is able to integrate Pebble's platform in a way which is in line with Pebble developers' expectations, I believe that these developers are likely to work with Fitbit's new platform."
One of the Pebble insiders we spoke to broadly agrees, but predicts that because he "highly, highly doubts that much of Pebble's DNA is going to come out in this product," this might cause problems with the community.
"In general, their reaction was positive – like, maybe there's something here," he explained. "But it's not clear to me that the Pebble developer community is going to follow Fitbit."
"I think the thing that people forget is these developers didn't build on Pebble because they made a lot of money or because it was prestigious," one source told us. "It was a hacker community, created with Kickstarter and there's something unique about Pebble and our story, and even Eric. There's a huge cultural gap between what Fitbit represents and what Pebble did."
Unlikely: An uber Pebble/Vector mash-up
After the two acquisitions of Pebble and Vector – known for 8, 10 and even 25 day battery life in smartwatches – the internet made a big assumption: that Fitbit wanted to build some kind of ultimate, ultra long-lasting smartwatch.
That's what ex-Vector CEO Joe Santana predicts we'll see: "I don't have access because they did not require someone of my background in Fitbit. But I think the Vector team is going to focus on developing a smartwatch more in line with what Vector was doing," he told Wareable.
"We were talking to Fitbit in mid-2016, after Baselworld. They were interested in the software side of things, and obviously battery life was a key factor. When it comes to what made Vector so attractive to Fitbit, having that single battery life story was very important. Fitbit has taken on the whole Vector development team, led by Bogdan [Ripa, now senior director, product management at Fitbit] who originally developed the Vector watch software."
That sounds promising, right? Well prepare to have your hopes dashed. One of our anonymous Pebble sources who is familiar with the Pebble acquisition begs to disagree.
"That's the funny thing," he told us. "Everyone on Reddit is saying they're going to make the Uber Pebble Vector watch and it couldn't be further from the truth. They have zero interest in that."
And interestingly, that seems to be in line with the latest word that Fitbit is making something with a four day battery life akin to the Blaze - since confirmed by the leaked images. Now, that's still 2 - 3 days better than most smartwatches so hold fire on the scoffing, and it also lines up with Park saying in May 2017 that the smartwatch would have "long battery life."
The rumours are that the watch will have an aluminium unibody casing, again in line with what we can see in the pics, and have swappable bands, as we've seen with Fitbit's recent devices. The same report also claims the watch will retail for around $300, putting it in the same price bracket as Apple's smartwatch and contenders like the LG Watch Sport.
Likely: A fancy AMOLED touchscreen
Which brings us to the screen. The reason our Pebble insider was so sure that Fitbit won't bring out an all purpose smartwatch with a low power display is the Apple Watch-rival ambition. According to recent reports, the Fitbit smartwatch is set to rock a 1,000-nit display, which would make it as bright as Apple's latest watch. The images don't give much away aside from the fact it will indeed be a colour display.
"They're really thinking of it like – it's the Apple Watch competitor and because Apple has a shiny screen, we need a shiny screen," he said. "The problem Apple has is that it's Apple so they can't really ship a shitty screen. Fitbit has an opportunity to really establish a unique point of view but to them, it's apps and AMOLED displays and touch displays."
Interacting with the display is another consideration, especially on a fitness-focused device, so Fitbit needs to make sure it can withstand some sweaty finger contact. It's not clear whether this is a touchscreen or not, the pause button in the leaked image suggests so but there's also two textured buttons on the side which may function like the old Pebble buttons.
There's also a good chance that Fitbit probably won't fitting in Pebble's nifty Timeline feature, as the UI on the new watch has been described as very similar to the Blaze's. We may see some of Pebble's DNA in there, but don't count on getting anything similar to the same experience. "I don't have inside information but I highly doubt we'll see Timeline," our source said. "I don't think they have the people or the time to reimagine Timeline on a touch device."
(Pretty much) confirmed: It'll do payments
Way back in May 2016, Fitbit bought wearable payment technology from the financial tech startup Coin. It included IP and engineering personnel, but Fitbit said it wouldn't be using Coin's existing mobile wallet and it wouldn't be launching any devices with the tech in 2016. Well, it's 2017 now and if Fitbit releases an Apple Watch-style smartwatch with apps and no NFC payments, we'll eat your hat.
Last year, James Park told Fortune that one use case would be buying a bottle of water at the end of a run, showing that fitness would still be the focus.
"The proliferation of contactless payments across the developed markets and the increasing adoption of Apple Pay and Samsung Pay means that infrastructure and consumer awareness for this technology is ripe," said CCS Insight's George Jijiashvili. "This is where I believe the Coin assets will come into play."
This is another area where Fitbit may not be able to compete with Apple. Will iPhone users want to add their credit and debit cards to another in-app wallet if they already use Apple Pay? We shall see, but word is that Fitbit is set to include contactless payments in its smartwatch.
Likely: Stylish but not too stylish
Well, we now know what it looks like - though bear in mind this might not be the final design. It's very Blaze-like, isn't it? As with the touch control issues above, Fitbit doesn't want to alienate its core fans. Vector's Joe Santana predicts: "Fitbit doesn't want to move too far from the activity tracking point of view, because it's a core position, so they're not going to come out with just a fashionable smartwatch."
That's despite Fitbit's recent push into designer accessories for the Alta as well as Park's own statement of intent that we should look forward to something "stylish" and "well designed".
Fitbit is already working with Tory Burch, Vera Wang and Public School on bands and accessories for its trackers, so we assume it's putting customisation partnerships in place to rival Apple's designer tie-ins, ready for the launch. While we're not bowled over by that pics, we reckon a few tweaks to the Blaze design could make it more of a looker in real life, so here's hoping.
What about fitness?
Funny you should ask that because – well, this is what we know least about. The images show heart rate tracking so tick that one off and sources say we should expect GPS. Elsewhere, it could just be the case that we see the same sensors and tracking capabilities we've seen on Fitbit's previous devices. The Surge has GPS, the Charge 2 does VO2 Max and guided breathing etc etc.
We're still waiting for the next technological breakthrough from Fitbit. Way back in December 2015, Park said (and we haven't forgotten): "We're definitely going to be releasing devices with advanced sensors that help people track not only more accurate metrics on what we're doing today, but additional metrics as well.
"I can't talk specifically, but things people are going to be interested in in the future are blood pressure, or stress, or more stats about their athletic performance. Those are all things that we're working on and we'll continue to release over time." Sure that could mean VO2 Max and guided breathing but we're going to assume Fitbit is cooking up something more impressive.
We also know Fitbit tried (and failed) to buy Jawbone at the end of 2016 – the deal would have meant Fitbit acquiring Jawbone's software assets and Intellectual Property but no price could be agreed. Make of that what you will – someone should buy it soon though and do something with its promising platform.
Back to that report on Fitbit's current troubles, and apparently GPS is one things it's tripping up on. The company allegedly had to go back to square one here, as the GPS wasn't working properly in the prototype unit. "In one of the more final prototypes, the GPS wasn't working because the antennae wasn't in the right place," a source told Yahoo. "They had to go back to the drawing board to redesign the product so the GPS got a strong signal." Waterproofing is also not guaranteed, as the same report goes on to state that Fitbit has had problems here too. We're optimistic that Fitbit will get this sorted, as it knows waterproofing it will make it much more appealing to fitness fans, and as Apple now offers the same ability in Watch Series 2, it will look worse if Fitbit rolls out a device that can't be taken into the pool.
Another interesting point is that Fitbit is working on some Bluetooth sports earphones that it will launch alongside the watch. Said earphones are to be more like the Beat X in design than, say, the Bragi Dash or Apple AirPods.
A big opportunity
In a line, it's worth Fitbit acknowledging that the Apple Watch already exists so we don't need another one. Based on everything we've seen, Fitbit will end up with a sporty Apple Watch rival that could sell well if the GPS, waterproofing and four day battery life come through.
More recently, Park said Fitbit's still-not-official smartwatch would come with Fitbit's "own unique perspective" and feature "long battery life, coupled with an amazing interactive experience, and one of the largest fitness social networks." The company definitely wants to lean into what it's good at.
The Series 2 is selling pretty well with iPhone users and even though, as Jijiashvili points out, "Fitbit does have its brand on its side; its name is synonymous with fitness tracking", that's not necessarily enough beyond trackers.
One of our Pebble sources told us his rosiest outlook: "I hope they manage to keep the non 'phone on your wrist' approach to smartwatches alive. If all that's left is Apple and Google LED/LTE/GPS, one-day battery eye candy then we will have missed out on truly functional companions."
But another wasn't so optimistic. "There's a lot more value that Pebble could have brought them that they didn't capitalise on," he said. "This is a huge lost opportunity for them."
In the latest Bloomberg report, several members of the team are cited as considering rhe watch to be sub-standard and, according to the report, "a project the company should never have embarked on". One is quoted as saying: They're building something that people internally never believed in. They look reactionary not strategic."
Our two cents is that Fitbit can offer whatever it likes in terms of apps and additional functions like wearable payments, as long as it produces a device with a form factor that works for health and fitness users and a battery life that's at least in line with what its trackers offer. Essentially, it needs to offer something different to the Apple Watch.
Additional reporting by James Stables.
Do you think Fitbit can succeed where others have failed with smartwatches? What are you looking to see from its next device? Let us know in the comments.